A team of attorneys from Ballard Spahr has succeeded in overturning a court order confiscating the West Philadelphia row home of a 69-year-old widow never accused of a crime or violation. The case raises the standard of proof needed to confiscate property under Pennsylvania’s civil forfeiture law.

Now that a Pennsylvania appeals court has nullified the forfeiture order issued by the trial court, Elizabeth Young, a retired Amtrak employee, has a fighting chance to recoup the longtime home she lost due to her son’s marijuana conviction. Ms. Young’s pro bono attorneys from Ballard Spahr successfully argued on appeal that the trial court’s application of Pennsylvania’s civil forfeiture law was unconstitutional, and further argued for a stronger standard of proof—clear and convincing evidence instead of a preponderance of the evidence—to confiscate property under the law.

Last week, the Commonwealth Court, deciding the case en banc, reversed the trial court and remanded the case for further proceedings. The majority, in an opinion by Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, adopted many of the arguments put forth by the Ballard Spahr team.

“We are very pleased with the Commonwealth Court's decision, which will not only benefit Elizabeth Young, but property owners throughout the state,” said Jessica M. Anthony, the lead member of the Ballard Spahr team representing Ms. Young. “The decision will protect those who have not been accused of any criminal conduct, yet still face forfeiture of their property for someone else’s wrongdoing.”

Ms. Young has been living in South Carolina with relatives since 2012, when the Commonwealth seized her modest home in West Philadelphia, where she had lived for more than four decades. Ms. Young’s minivan also was seized as a result of the forfeiture order, issued by the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County under Pennsylvania’s civil forfeiture law.

The forfeiture was ordered after Ms. Young’s son was arrested in 2010 for selling small amounts of marijuana at the home and in the minivan. She testified that she was unaware of any illicit activity at her home, and that police never gave her any evidence that a crime had been committed there. She also testified that she was recovering from health problems and was in bed when police, as part of their investigation of her son, broke down the door of her house in November 2009 because, a law enforcement witness explained, she did not answer within 35 seconds of a knock.

Based on the appellate court ruling, Ms. Young is hopeful that she may soon be able to move back to the close-knit neighborhood she called home since the 1970s. The home, assessed at $54,000, also was her primary asset. “The decision will help to ensure that protections afforded by the Constitution extend to the forfeiture process and are rigorously applied before depriving individuals of one of their fundamental rights,” said Ballard Spahr Pro Bono Counsel Mary Gay Scanlon. “We are delighted by the ruling and extremely proud of Jessica and the entire team involved.”

The Ballard Spahr team that assisted in this matter also includes litigation partner Jason A. Leckerman and litigation associate Lisa B. Swaminathan.

Ballard Spahr is committed to providing legal assistance to those who cannot afford it. Each year, the firm undertakes a diverse range of pro bono work, including death penalty, voting rights, asylum and immigration, and child advocacy cases. As a signatory to the American Bar Association’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge, Ballard Spahr has annually made and met a commitment to donate at least 3 percent of its billable hours to pro bono service, equal to about 30,000 hours a year.

Related Areas

Pro Bono