A team of Ballard Spahr litigators delivered a landmark victory for their client—and property owners throughout the Commonwealth—when the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court today unanimously affirmed a lower court decision defining the parameters of civil forfeiture and arming Pennsylvanians involved in such cases with the most robust constitutional protections in the country.

The lawyers represented Elizabeth Young, a 71-year-old West Philadelphia grandmother whose home and car were seized by the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas under the Commonwealth’s civil forfeiture laws after her adult son was arrested for selling $140 worth of marijuana. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office alleged that the drug deal took place in the home and car without any involvement on the part of Ms. Young.

The Ballard Spahr team won a precedent-setting Commonwealth Court decision in 2014 that established sweeping new standards of evidence the Commonwealth must meet to prevail in such cases. Today’s unanimous Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision affirmed that decision. Ballard Spahr Partners Jessica M. Anthony and Jason A. Leckerman and Associate Joanna Hess Kunz handled the case.

“Our Supreme Court has firmly established that District Attorney's offices in Pennsylvania can no longer trample on the rights of property owners, especially those who cannot afford a lawyer,” said Ms. Anthony, who argued the case. “It is a mandate to the government and to law enforcement and a victory for civil liberties.”

Civil forfeitures have caused an outcry across the country, but have been largely unchallenged until recently. Today’s decision remands Ms. Young’s case—Commonwealth v. 1997 Chevrolet—back to the trial court. The Commonwealth can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court is unlikely to agree to hear the case. Justice Clarence Thomas sharply criticized civil forfeiture laws two months ago when the Court refused to hear a similar case, questioning whether modern civil forfeiture statues align with due process rights.

In today’s opinion, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra McCloskey Todd’s opinion stated that the Eighth Amendment—which prohibits the government from imposing excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishment—requires an initial determination about the relationship between the forfeited property and the underlying offense. The decision also requires analysis into whether the forfeiture is “grossly disproportional” to the gravity of the offense.

“This is one of the most important civil forfeiture decisions issued by a court and the most important ever issued in Pennsylvania,” Mr. Leckerman said. “The court has set forth a comprehensive constitutional framework for analyzing forfeiture claims that should substantially curb forfeiture proceedings in Pennsylvania and is likely to influence other state courts considering these issues."


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