Many people are not aware that the government can seek forfeiture of people's property if the property is somehow believed to be involved in criminal activity. I believe that most people would not have a problem with the government seizing the proceeds of illegal activity or property and things that were purchased with such proceeds. For example, if a person were a large scale drug dealer, the dealer may have money in the bank, cash in a safe in the house, cars, motorcycles, and even a vacation home. In such cases, I suspect that no one would have a problem with the government seizing such items as a criminal should not be able to benefit from the illegal activity.
Forfeiture in State College Marijuana Case
What people are not aware of is that the ties between the illegal activity and the money or property is not as direct, yet the government may still try to pursue a civil forfeiture action. For example, a few years ago, I represented a 19-year-old that drove his parent's car to Penn State to visit some high school friends. Unbeknownst to the parents, the son decided to take some marijuana to Penn State to share with his friends. He gave some weed to a friend, and it turned out that the friend was a confidential informant that was working with members of the State College Police Department and the Centre County Drug Task Force. The young man was arrested, charged with felony offenses of Delivery and Possession With Intent to Deliver Marijuana, and faced a 2-year mandatory sentencing because the drug delivery occurred within 1,000 feet of the University Park Campus of Penn State. The penalty for such an offense is ridiculous, but some people would not feel sorry for the kid because he made the decision to break the law. What people may not agree with is the fact that the government commenced a forfeiture action to take the car, a car that belonged to the parents. The parents had no idea that the son would do something stupid like transport marijuana to Penn State and give some to a friend. Should the parents have suspected that the kid would engage in some underage drinking? Sure. But selling weed to a friend is not what a parent would expect to happen.
Because the vehicle was used to facilitate a crime, meaning transport the weed, it was subject to forfeiture. After a lengthy discussion with a very reasonable member of the Attorney General's Office, I was able to convince the government to return the vehicle to the parents, but the parents lost use of the car for over a year.
I am sure people are thinking that this type of thing doesn't happen very often. In Philadelphia, forfeiture proceedings have been used to seize the homes of parents. According to a recent philly.com article, forfeiture proceedings were started to seize a home after the owner's child sold $40.00 of drugs outside the home. Philly lawyers have filed a Federal lawsuit that primarily seeks to force a shutdown of the DA's current forfeiture system. They argue that while the forfeiture law was initially passed with good intentions, to take property that was clearly and directly related to criminal activity, it has now begun to be abused by prosecutors to take property from law-abiding citizens. According to the Virginia-based Institute for Injustice, the Philadelphia DA's Office gets approximately $5.8 million a year from converting property. The proceeds account for 20% of the district attorney's annual budget, and 40% of the funds are used to pay the salaries of prosecutors. This is a big money generator for prosecutors, and prosecutors have an added incentive to increase the seizures of property to pay their salaries.
As John Dalberg-Acton said, "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Here, it appears that the power has corrupted and the forfeiture authority is being abused. Hopefully the Philadelphia defense attorneys can convince the courts to take a greater role in protecting Philly citizens from this abuse of power.