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Supreme Court case protects suspects' property rights

In many states, including Pennsylvania, police have the right to seize property when there is reason to suspect that the property may have been connected with a crime.

For instance, in the case of alleged drug crimes that involve a vehicle, police may impound the vehicle and, ultimately, sell it in order to raise money for their department.

Pennsylvania unfortunately has some very broad civil forfeiture laws. There is a relatively low threshold Pennsylvania police must satisfy before they exercise their option to declare property forfeit. A Pennsylvania resident need not even be convicted of a crime before facing civil forfeiture.

Moreover, the law allows police to keep all of the proceeds from the sale, which can create an incentive for police to use civil forfeiture liberally. Pennsylvania also does not give a lot of protection to people who may own property that gets declared forfeit, even if they had no idea that the property was being used for criminal activity.

A recent holding from the United States Supreme Court may change this legal landscape somewhat. For the first time, the Court held that states, like the federal government, may not impose excessive fines, which includes civil forfeiture, on those who go through their justice systems.

Ultimately, the Court ordered police in another state to return or reimburse a defendant for a $42,000 vehicle that police seized as part of a drug investigation. Although the man pled guilty to a drug charge, the Court concluded that under the circumstances, effectively depriving him of $42,000 was the equivalent of an excessive fine.

Someone who is accused of a drug-related charge in Indiana, Pennsylvania, should be aware that they may lose property to a civil forfeiture proceeding. They are encouraged to speak to an attorney about their options in this respect.

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