Property Owner Automatically Entitled To A Jury Trial In A Forfeiture Case
Written by: Alan Nochumson
While most of the public attention nowadays is focused squarely upon property owners losing their homes through foreclosure proceedings, property owners may also forfeit their homes if they are involved in drug-related crimes.
Under the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act (CSFA), property used to facilitate any violation of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act may lawfully be seized. Included under the forfeiture act is real property. The CSFA permits seizure of real property “used or intended to be used to facilitate any violation of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, including structures or other improvements thereon, and including any right, title and interest in the whole or any lot or tract of land and any appurtenances or improvements, which is used, or intended to be used, in any manner or part, to commit, or to facilitate the commission of, a violation of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, and things growing on, affixed to and found in the land.”
While this may seem like a drastic penalty, there are safeguards in place available to property owners involved in forfeiture proceedings, as illustrated by a ruling recently handed down by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in Commonwealth v. Real Property and Improvements at 2338 N. Beechwood St.
According to the opinion, an officer met with a confidential informant who was given $20 to purchase crack cocaine at a residential property located in Philadelphia. The officer returned to the property the next day to conduct surveillance where multiple drug deals were observed, the opinion said. Later in the day, the officer executed a search warrant and confiscated multiple items of drug paraphernalia from the property, the opinion said.
Even though none of the drug deals involved the property owner, the state filed a petition under the CSFA, petitioning the trial court to obtain the property by way of forfeiture. The property owner appeared pro se at the hearing.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court ordered for the property to be forfeited.
After obtaining legal counsel, on appeal, the property owner raised several issues to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In particular, the property owner argued that her due process rights were violated when she was not informed of her right to a jury trial.
In its ruling, the trial court in 2338 N. Beechwood St. reasoned that the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure apply to forfeiture proceedings under the CSFA, including the court rules regarding the selection of a jury trial.
As the trial court pointed out, in civil proceedings, unlike criminal proceedings, a trial court is not required to ensure that a party is aware of the right to a jury trial or that waiver is knowing and intelligent. Rather, the trial court noted that, in civil proceedings, the party must affirmatively demand for a jury trial to occur, while, in criminal proceedings, there is a presumption that a defendant will proceed with a jury trial that can only be rebutted if both the defendant and the commonwealth agree to waive this right and if the waiver is knowing and intelligent.
Subsequent to the trial court’s ruling, however, the Commonwealth Court issued a plurality opinion in Commonwealth v. All That Certain Lot or Parcel of Land Located at 605 University Drive, announcing that “forfeiture proceedings, while civil in nature, involve constitutional rights normally only involved in criminal proceedings.”
In 605 University Drive, a majority of the Commonwealth Court agreed that there could be no summary judgment in a forfeiture case and that the civil rules on summary judgment did not apply to forfeiture proceedings. In doing so, the Commonwealth Court in 605 University Drive relied upon rulings made by the U.S. Supreme Court holding that the Fourth and Fifth amendment protections in criminal proceedings are applicable in forfeiture proceedings.
In 2338 N. Beechwood St., the Commonwealth Court reiterated that the court rules pertaining to criminal proceedings apply to a forfeiture action.
Since the property owner was not afforded a jury trial or knowingly or intelligently waived her right to one, the Commonwealth Court vacated the forfeiture order and remanded the case back down to the trial court for a new hearing with a jury trial.
2338 N. Beechwood St. also contains a concurring opinion where some judges of the Commonwealth Court also emphasized that “there are other rights that a person whose property is being forfeited must be informed of either prior to or at the required hearing on forfeiture.” In the concurring opinion, these judges reference that a person whose property is being subjected to forfeiture has a constitutional right against self-incrimination, imposition of excessive fines, and the right to interpose the “innocent owner defense,” in addition to the due process of law.
The Commonwealth Court in 2338 N. Beechwood St. removed any doubt that the criminal rules, not the civil rules, of procedure apply in forfeiture actions. Local governments throughout the state will, thus, be well advised to change the way they have been doing business in forfeiture actions if they have not already since 605 University Drive.
Reprinted with permission from the April 16, 2013 edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2013 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, email@example.com or visit www.almreprints.com.