Elizabeth Young is a 72-year-old widow and former Amtrak employee who lived in a modest brick row house in West Philadelphia beginning in the 1970s. She lived there until 2013, when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took it.
You should know Elizabeth Young has not been accused of a crime by the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Allegations of committing a crime is the usual precursor to conviction of a crime—which, in turn, is the usual precursor to being punished for a crime.
Crime and [then] Punishment. Simple. That’s how it works. Right?
Surprise! Wrong. That’s not how it works.
In 2009, Young, who had just been hospitalized with blood clots in her lungs, allowed her adult son, then 50, to move in with her. Because Young’s adult son sold less than $200 worth of marijuana to undercover police officers—who spent four months arranging $20 and $40 buys in order to make their case against the neighborhood weed dealer, and one of whom later pleaded guilty to federal crimes for planting evidence on suspects—Pennsylvania has spent the past seven years seizing and then defending the seizure of Young’s $54,000 house (where her son lived) and her 1997 Chevrolet minivan (which he on occasion drove).
Note the irony of Donald Graham, Young’s son, receiving no jail time after pleading guilty. Instead, he received 11 to 23 months of house arrest.
As Forbes reported, this is standard procedure: Since 2006, Philadelphia cops have seized more than 1,000 homes, 3,000 vehicles and $44 million in cash in drug-related asset forfeiture proceedings. As we, and many others, have reported in tones ranging from outrage to righteous indignation to exhausted, morally-spent resignation, there need not be any criminal proceedings for a citizens’ possessions to be seized under drug-related asset forfeiture laws.
So taking Elizabeth Young’s home and her van was just another day.
But! There’s good news.
On May 25, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court—to whom prosecutors had appealed the case, after a lower appeals court voided the forfeiture, which meant Young was still out of her home as the case wound through the courts—sent the case back to lower court yet again, but with some strict new rules in place for this and future asset forfeitures.
Young is still not back in her home—and since the case was kicked back to lower court for review, there’s no timetable for when she can return.
But going forward, it will be more difficult for Pennsylvania to take other peoples’ homes, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
First, the property seized has to be used “deliberately and repeatedly” in the commission of an offense. A forfeited property must also be proportional to the offense. A $54,000 house cannot be seized over $200 worth of marijuana, if the punishments and penalties for selling the marijuana don’t come close to the value of the house—and any disproportional seizure may be voiced under the Eighth Amendment, which is supposed to protect against excessive fines.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, there must be “strong evidence” that the home, car or other property to be seized was used in the commission of the crime—and that the owner knew and consented.
Think of it this way—would New York try to seize Trump Tower if a tenant was dealing drugs, or selling counterfeit Russian dolls?
The high court also had strong words for the trial court, which was dinged for not considering Young’s poor health, her stated desire to evict her son if he was caught using drugs—and cops’ failure to provide her any proof of her son dealing drugs when, after they showed up at her house with an arrest warrant in November 2009, she asked them for it.
“The trial should have considered what was reasonable under these circumstances,” the Supreme Court judges wrote.
“It is a mandate for the government and to law enforcement and a victory for civil liberties,” said attorney Jessica Anthony, one of the lawyers who argued Young’s case before the state Supreme Court, in comments to the Inquirer.
However, all’s not well—yet.
Asset forfeiture laws are still in place—and, if what Donald Trump told a Texas county sheriff is to be believed, they aren’t going anywhere quite yet.
Still, anything that will make it more difficult for police and prosecutors to take away peoples’ homes for other peoples’ conduct is welcome. What would be even better is Pennsylvania giving up and walking away from Elizabeth Young’s home.