It took four years, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has finally ruled in favor of 72 year old grandmother Elizabeth Young, whose house was seized by the Philadelphia District Attorney under asset forfeiture rules when her son was caught selling $140 worth of marijuana to undercover agents.
Under civil forfeiture rules, cops and DAs get to steal property suspected of being the proceeds of a crime, then they sue the inanimate objects. The owners of the objects can hire lawyers to represent their property, while the taxpayers foot the bill for the state's side of the suit. If the government wins, it gets to keep the property or sell it and pocket the proceeds.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court blasted the DA for the seizure and reminded the state's lawyers and cops that they can only invoke civil forfeiture when there is good reason to believe that the property's owner "knew of and agreed to the crimes" in question.
The cop who bought the marijuana from Young's son is currently serving a 3.5 year federal prison sentence for planting drugs on suspects.
Young is far from the only person to have her house seized by the Philadelphia D.A. for a minor drug crime that she didn't even commit. In 2013, Philadelphia police seized the house of Christos and Markela Sourovelis after their son was arrested for selling $40-worth of drugs outside of it.
The Sourovelis' sued, with assistance from the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states. The Sourovelis' plight drew national media attention, and the Philadelphia D.A. eventually dropped the case. However, the city is still facing a class-action lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice challenging its asset forfeiture program. According to the firm, Philadelphia has seized more than 1,000 homes, 3,000 vehicles and $44 million in cash over 11 years.
Between the new legal standard issued by the Supreme Court, the looming lawsuit, and a potential reformer leading the district attorney's office—Democratic Philadelphia D.A. candidate Larry Krasner vowed to rein in the program in an interview with Reason earlier this year—the salad days of Philadelphia's asset forfeiture machine may be ending.
The Philadelphia police officer who coordinated the undercover marijuana buys at Young's house pled guilty and was sentenced in 2015 to three-and-a-half years in federal prison on corruption charges involving planting drug evidence on suspects.
Court to Grandma: You Shouldn't Lose Your House Just Because Your Dumb Son Sold Some Weed There