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The house on the northwest corner of 62nd and Osage is one of those modest rowhomes that you’ll find all over Philly. The home, together with a 1997 Chevy Venture, has been the center of a four-year legal battle: The district attorney’s office has seized them. Their owner would like them back.
The DA’s office had taken the home through civil asset forfeiture, a practice which, in contrast with criminal forfeiture, allows for suits to be filed against a piece of property— a necklace, some cash, or a truck, for example— rather than a person, and typically does not require that charges be brought against the owner. Criticism over its use has grown in recent years nationwide, particularly since a 2012 Philadelphia City Paper investigation uncovered that Philadelphia’s DA office was pulling in more revenue from seizures than Brooklyn and Los Angeles combined, with “little regard for a property owner’s guilt or innocence.”
Elizabeth Young, a retired Amtrak veteran who bought the corner house in the 1970s, lost her home after her son Donald Graham was charged with drug possession and trafficking. Young, who was ill at the time, says she knew nothing about the drug sales. He says the same. In December 2014, an appellate court overturned the trial court’s decision in Young’s favor, finding that the house was not “instrumental” to Graham’s drug sales. The Commonwealth has appealed that, sending the case to the state Supreme Court. Briefs from her representation and in support of her case were filed yesterday.
Graham had sold small amounts of pot to informants who collected information through an investigation, totaling $190. When police busted the house in 2010 (this was the second search, the first, months earlier, yielded only two smaller packets of weed), officers seized 13.1 grams from the house and car, and another 1.3 grams “not packaged for delivery,” according to court documents. For those of us hardwired for the English system, that’s roughly half an ounce.
The federal and state constitutions prohibit excessive fines. Lisa Swaminathan, one of Young’s lawyers at the firm Ballard Spahr, says what’s in question here is a clear test for what that looks like, or what that doesn’t look like.
“The Commonwealth would contend that its appropriate to punish someone based on somebody else’s conduct almost entirely,” says Swaminathan, “And we would say that that can’t be right— when you’re punishing someone by forfeiting their home or their car, the test has to consider their culpability.”
Young’s brief argues that “[w]ithout meaningful protection in these circumstances, there is an incalculable risk of not only undeservedly punishing a person, but also depriving that person of the fundamental right of property long embodied in the values of our society.”
This state Supreme Court decision could have huge impacts throughout Pennsylvania, a commonwealth where, according to a 2015 ACLU of PA report, $14 million worth of seizures are conducted through civil asset forfeiture annually.
Graham pleaded guilty to selling marijuana, but seethes at the memory that newspapers had labeled him a drug dealer. He disputes this. “There’s been no big-time drug dealing,” says Graham. He argues that no drugs were sold in the house and that the marijuana discovered was under 50 grams. Often, he says, what he had in his stash, he’d share. “The stuff that they seized was smokable. I was only smoking stuff to keep up my habit.”
Forfeitures account for 7.3 percent of the D.A. office’s appropriated budget, according a report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Roughly one in three cash seizures in Philadelphia are from residents who weren’t convicted of a crime, the report also finds, reaching $1 million seized from innocent civilians annually. Seventy-one percent of these residents are African-American.
At the time, D.A. Seth Williams challenged how the ACLU of PA defined “innocence.”
“Forfeiture is not a criminal process,” he said in a statement. “It is a civil lawsuit, like any case in which someone is sued for causing damage to person or property… Remember, criminal charges are a separate matter, they might even be beaten in court.”
Young’s case is a rarity; many civil forfeiture cases don’t make it to trial. “Generally civil forfeiture matters settle, these are cases where civil respondents have a lot on the line,” says Swaminathan. “They face losing their cars, their home, a number of other assets that are valuable to them… they risk losing a lot.”
But in another sense, Young’s story is very common. “When you look at the Young case, it is not an outlier. It is actually a profile that we see over and over again,” says Lou Rulli, professor and director of clinical programs at Penn Law. “It’s very clear that the forfeiture of homes, for example, in Philadelphia, which has been an aggressive practice, substantially and disproportionately impacts low-income residents the city. They’re the least able to defend their property, the least able to get counsel. That has very serious impacts.”
Rulli had been working on a supporting brief submitted on behalf of Community Legal Services, ACLU of PA, Philadelphia Legal Assistance, the Senior Law Center, the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, and the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program, shares analysis of forfeitures from 2010 by income and race, which they mapped.
“There were 452 petitions seeking to take the homes of Philadelphians [in that year] alone,” says Rulli. “We looked particularly at the expanded Center City area. And in this [section] there was only one forfeiture petition filed out of the 452, and that one petition was filed against an African-American family.”
Considering where forfeitures have been concentrated, it begs the question how the practice is affecting the city’s blight problem. Rulli says this is something that studies have yet to measure.
Young’s block in Cobbs Creek (around the corner from the rebuilt, but still beleaguered block of the MOVE bombing) is relatively well kept, but vacancy worries Ruth Willis some. Willis, a retired school secretary who lives next door to the house in question, says three years ago, the property was being treated as a garbage dump, as many vacant properties are.
“The backyard was trashed; the front yard was trashed,” she says. She complained to the city after she found a rat in her house. While she’s not positive that the rat came from next door, she suspects it did. She says the city advised her not to close up holes between Young’s house and hers. She did anyway.
Graham, who was sentenced to house arrest, thinks it’s a good thing that the case has gone beyond Philly courts. He wants to see a wrong righted, he says.
“I couldn’t explain to my mother why she lost her house,” says Graham. “My mother shouldn’t have to lose anything for something she didn’t do.”