Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court recently reversed a lower-court ruling in a case from Centre County dealing with the state’s civil asset forfeiture law. Under Pennsylvania’s forfeiture law (42 Pa. C.S. §6801), the state is allowed to seize any personal property involved in a violation of the Controlled Substance Act. After hearing a case from Centre County, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini called the law “state-sanctioned theft.”
In 2009, Gregory Palazzari was arrested in Centre County for trafficking drugs at a gas station just outside of Penn State. The state also seized his gas station under the Pennsylvania forfeiture law, since that was where the majority of the illegal activity took place. Palazzari is serving 5-10 years in prison, but he and his attorney, Steven Passarello, are still contesting the forfeiture. Passarello argues that since the gas station is of such higher monetary value than the drugs that were sold there, the state should not be allowed to seize the full value of it. Regardless, the Court of Common Pleas of Centre County granted summary judgment to the District Attorney, so Passarello appealed to the Commonwealth Court.
In his majority opinion, The Honorable Dan Pellegrini found that these property forfeiture cases are not only civil cases, but are “quasi-criminal” punitive proceedings. As such, he noted that there should be a hearing, and possibly even a jury, to determine if the state can seize the property. Others have also weighed in on this issue, including Larry Salzman, an attorney at the Institute for Justice. Salzman points out that police departments and the prosecution often receive a portion of the value of the seized property. As a result, “forfeiture becomes a means by which law enforcement agencies can pad their budgets, so they end up with a direct and perverse financial incentive to pursue forfeitures very aggressively.”
This case sets a new precedent for property forfeiture cases across the state, but Passarello expects that the state will appeal the case to the State Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court affirms the Commonwealth Court’s ruling, then the accused will have a right to a hearing before the state can seize any property.