Article by Nick Sibilla, Forbes
Without ever being charged with a crime, a West Philadelphia grandmother had her home and her car confiscated because her son sold less than $200 worth of marijuana. Elizabeth Young, now 72, is just one of thousands of victims of civil forfeiture, which allows police and prosecutors to confiscate property, even if the owner has not been convicted or accused of any wrongdoing.
But on Thursday, more than seven years after her legal nightmare began, Young scored a major victory at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In a meticulous and unanimous decision, the court rejected the government’s confiscation, and issued more stringent safeguards for property owners. Writing for the court, Justice Debra Todd held that this ruling would ensure that “innocent property owners are not dispossessed of what may be essential possessions…without rigorous scrutiny by the courts.”
Property owners desperately needed greater protections, especially in Philadelphia, where law enforcement has confiscated over 1,000 homes, more than 3,000 vehicles and $44 million in cash over 11 years. Thanks in part to a separate, class action-lawsuit by the Institute for Justice (which also filed an amicus brief for Young’s case), Philadelphia’s “forfeiture machine” has become notorious nationwide for its abuses, and has even been showcased on CNN and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Young’s case began in 2009 after she allowed her adult son, Donald Graham, and his children to live with her, but only after Graham claimed he no longer used drugs. Previously, when Young learned Graham was using, she refused to speak to him and shunned her son entirely. With her son back in her life, Young relied on Graham for assistance, who drove his mother to church, to run errands and to meet appointments. (Young has been hospitalized for two blood clots in her lungs.)
But unbeknownst to Young, Graham was a small-time dealer. Beginning in November 2009, Philadelphia police conducted seven controlled buys with confidential informants against Graham. That effective use of taxpayer’s money netted just 19 grams of marijuana, with an estimated street value of around $190.