Imagine police came into your house, guns drawn, flashed a piece of paper in your face, and told you to get down on the ground. They searched your house, placed you under arrest and took you for booking.
After you make bail and go home, you get ready to go to court with your lawyer to fight the charges…
But before you get to court, you receive a knock at the door from detectives of the District Attorney’s Office. This is the nightmare scenario that happens every day to good people here in Philadelphia.
They tell you that you have ten minutes to gather your belongings and get out. They hand you some paperwork and board up your door. A few days later they mail paperwork to your house telling you that they want to keep the cash they took during the search, too.
You didn’t get that paperwork, though, since you were thrown out of your house.
What Are the Relevant Property Seizure Laws in Philadelphia, PA?
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office uses Civil Asset Forfeiture law to force people from their homes, take their cars, their money and their dignity.
You need to know your rights and you need to have a skilled attorney that can get your property back from the District Attorney’s Office, put you back in your home, and fight for your case.
How the Government Seizes Property in Philadelphia
Pennsylvania law, specifically the Drug Act at 42 Pa.C.S.Section 6801, allows the District Attorney to file civil actions in court to confiscate property, including money, cars and homes that the Commonwealth says, have a “nexus” to drug activity.
The word nexus is ambiguous and not clearly defined. For the police and the District Attorney’s office, it means whatever they say it means.
So, they take whatever they want from you, from your car or from your house, put it on a property receipt and give you a copy. A few days later, a District Attorney files some paperwork with the court to try to take it.
They drop off the paperwork to whatever address they think they have for you. You may be in jail and never even get the paperwork. If you don’t answer that paperwork with the court in time, your property is forfeited. Yes, it’s that easy. The District Attorney took your property before you even knew that they were trying to do it.
They can do this even if you are found not guilty or even if the charges are dropped at the first listing.
This may seem unfair, but the rules are stacked against you from the start. The District Attorney has used these rules to their benefit to forfeit millions of dollars from thousands of people each year, many of whom were never convicted of a single crime.
What to do if you are arrested for a narcotics violation and the police take any of your property:
- Ask for a copy of your property receipt – The police must give you a property receipt for whatever they take from you or from your home.
- Give your property receipt numbers to your lawyer immediately – Your lawyer needs to fight the forfeiture of your cash or car right away.
- Let your attorney know what was taken from you – If it was money, the specific amount – This is important because sometimes police keep some your money and don’t tell the court that they took it.
- Time is important/Don’t wait to tell your lawyer about your money– You only have a short time frame to answer the civil forfeiture petition that the District Attorney files. Many times, Defendants don’t even receive this, since they may be incarcerated.
What Property Can the District Attorney Seize in Philadelphia?
Along with taking property from you, your car or from your house, the District Attorney’s office can take your house, your parents’ house or just a house you may have gone into before you were arrested.
Again, the deck is stacked against innocent people, and the District Attorney’s office holds the cards. A knowledgeable, skilled Defense Attorney in Philadelphia can fight the District Attorney and keep you or your family in your home. Recently, people have been fighting back against this awful practice here in Philadelphia. Many times, innocent people have had their homes taken by the police and District Attorneys despite never being involved in a single drug offense or transaction.
A class action lawsuit filed this summer seeks to stop this unfair violation of basic human rights and has been in the news. If you are in the same situation as the people featured in this article, you should contact a skilled attorney immediately to have him fight for your home. Read Case Background
Help, My Property Has Been Sealed!
If your house has been sealed, you need an experienced attorney to represent you at the hearing and get you back into your home.
Just like forfeiture of money or cars, the District Attorney’s Office will file paperwork with the court to take the home of a citizen. Typically, the District Attorney will do this if a search warrant is executed on a home and the police claim to have recovered drugs inside. Sometimes, the District Attorney can ask the judge to seal a home, meaning that Philadelphia Police can come at 7am and board up a home and remove everyone in it without even letting them get all of their property out of it. The District Attorney and the Philadelphia Police Department call this “Sealing” a property.
This happens to hundreds of citizens every week here in Philadelphia. A sealing can occur without a hearing in court. All it takes is the signature of a judge on a piece of paper. No evidence is presented, and innocent citizens, including children are thrown into the street with no notice. For a home that has been sealed like this, the Court is required to schedule a hearing, usually within a week to go over the evidence that was in the sealing petition presented by the District Attorney.
Sealing a home does not happen in every Forfeiture Petition. Often, the District Attorney just files a Petition for Forfeiture against a home. Just like petitions to take money or cars, you have a short time to answer those petitions. If you don’t answer the petition in 30 days, the District Attorney can move to take your home by default judgment, meaning that the District Attorney gets to take your home without even calling a single witness in court to prove that the house was connected to drug activity.
Property Seized in a Drug Offense? Time is of the Essence!
If police officers entered your home during a drug arrest, you need to tell your attorney immediately to protect your property.
After the District Attorney files a Forfeiture Petition for a home, the case continues until the charges related to the drug arrest have concluded. Typically, if the Defendants are found not guilty, the District Attorney will withdraw the petition. However, if anyone connected to the house is found guilty, the District Attorney may move forward with a trial. You need to have a skilled attorney represent you at this trial.
Don’t go into Court when your home is at risk without legal representation.
Sometimes, the District Attorney will try to take the home of parents, friends or even a landlord when they make a narcotics arrest. These petitions will be filed against the actual property, so the court paperwork will say “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. 1234 Main Street.” Only the owner of the property, not his brother, daughter or cousin, has standing to challenge the Forfeiture Petition.
Pennsylvania Forfeiture Law allows for an “innocent owner” defense in cases where the owner of the property seized is not involved in any of the activities police observed for the arrest. This defense allows people to keep their homes, when their children or friends may be using their homes for drug activity. However, this defense must be asserted by the property owner. You need a skilled attorney to file an answer the District Attorney’s Forfeiture Petition in court and argue this defense to a judge.
Again, time is of the essence. You don’t want to wait and have to fight the court, because you didn’t answer the District Attorney’s Forfeiture Petition.
Forfeiture is another tool that the District Attorney may use to try to break you and your family down as you fight the charges against you. A large number of people accused of crimes never fight for their property seized or never have the opportunity to do so, because they didn’t know their rights or didn’t tell their attorney about the property taken by police. Know your rights and tell your lawyer right away to fight for your money, your car and your house. Don’t hesitate.