PA Supreme Court Holds Government Cannot Keep Your Property Without Statutory Authorization

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ December 16, 2018

Pennsylvania has forfeiture laws pertaining to drugs, fireworks, and alcohol, while requiring that the property have a substantial nexus with the misconduct at issue. But what happens when the State wants to confiscate property but is not authorized to do so by a statute? The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently held common law forfeiture does not exist in Pennsylvania.

Justen Irland was arrested in Adams County for brandishing his handgun at a driver who was tailgating his vehicle. Police took the gun and charged Irland with simple assault, harassment, disorderly conduct as a third-degree misdemeanor, and disorderly conduct as a summary offense. 

Irland plead guilty to the summary offense of disorderly conduct and the court ordered him to pay a $200 fine. Irland then filed a motion for return of his gun under Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 588, claiming a right to the gun on the basis that there are no statutory or common law grounds for forfeiture of the weapon. 

Criminal Procedure Rule 588(A) says:

“A person aggrieved by a search and seizure, whether or not executed pursuant to a warrant, may move for the return of the property on the ground that he or she is entitled to lawful possession thereof. Such motion shall be filed in the court of common pleas for the judicial district in which the property was seized.”

The state then filed a motion for forfeiture and destruction of the gun based on a theory of common-law forfeiture, reasoning it had legal authority to confiscate any property with a substantial “‘nexus’” to the crime committed. The trial court agreed with the State and ordered the gun to be destroyed.

In an en banc opinion, the Commonwealth Court reversed the trial court, holding that “common law forfeiture, as originated and developed in England, was never incorporated in Pennsylvania.” The intermediate court noted that the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 denounced and effectively abolished common law forfeiture.

The Supreme Court agreed with Irland holding that “there is no historical foundation establishing common law civil forfeiture in the Commonwealth and that civil forfeiture of derivative contraband requires statutory authorization.”

The Supreme Court holding establishes that, absent statutory authorization, common law civil forfeiture does not exist in Pennsylvania.

If you are concerned that your property was wrongfully seized, contact Fairlie and Lippy today to discuss your situation.

To read the full opinion:


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