In a civil forfeiture case that went all the way to the state supreme court, Elizabeth Young of Philadelphia will have her home returned to her seven years after it was seized based on $190 worth of cannabis, which belonged to her son.

Justice Debra Todd of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote that her ruling would help safeguard that “innocent property owners are not dispossessed of what may be essential possessions…without rigorous scrutiny by the courts.”

Young’s case is part of a larger problem. The practice of civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take possession of a person’s assets, regardless of whether that person is charged with a crime. Even if no charges are filed, a person must prove they were not involved in a crime in order to have the assets returned. This method was intended to curb large-scale drug trafficking often perpetrated by organized crime, but it also acts as a revenue stream for law enforcement.

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Elizabeth Young’s Home (Philly.com photo by Alejandro A. Alvarez)

The City of Philadelphia has almost created a business using civil forfeiture. $44 million has been collected over an 11-year period, along with 1,000 homes and 3,000 vehicles. The Institute of Justice, a 501(c)(3) that helps people with personal property cases, filed an amicus brief for the case in which they call this abuse the “Forfeiture Machine.”

The Justice Department also benefits this from this practice, and their taste for cash has increased over the last three decades, from $27 million in 1985 to $556 million in 1993 and $4.2 billion in 2012. Opponents of this method argue that law enforcement has more of an incentive to search for cash rather than trying to fight drug trafficking.

“If a cop stops a car going north with a trunk full of cocaine, that makes great press coverage, makes a great photo. Then they destroy the cocaine,” said Jack Fishman, a former IRS agent who is now a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta. “If they catch ’em going south with a suitcase full of cash, the police department just paid for its budget for the year.”

For Elizabeth Young, it wasn’t about mountains of cash or cars, but $190 worth of cannabis that her son, Donald Graham, was dealing without her knowledge. Graham pled guilty to both possession and distribution of cannabis. He served no time aside from house arrest, and Young was never charged for a crime.

But prosecutors seized Young’s home and car anyway, claiming that those assets were facilitating Graham’s cannabis sales. At trial, the court argued that Young turned “a blind eye to her son’s illegal conduct on the property,” even though she was not charged with a crime and had no knowledge of his activities.

The use and abuse of civil forfeiture by the DEA calls into question their motivation for fighting against cannabis legalization. In 2013, the DEA collected $18 million through its Cannabis Eradication Program alone. A bipartisan bill was introduced in 2015 by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), who represent two states that have legalized cannabis. The legislation appears to be in committee.

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