Pennsylvania v. 1997 Chevrolet, etc. (majority)Annotate this Case
Trial courts must identify the circumstances that make it reasonable to infer that the property owner had actual knowledge of the illegal use of the property or consented to the underlying criminal activity before allowing a civil in rem forfeiture of that property. The proper constitutional construct in determining whether an in rem forfeiture violates the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment requires an initial determination regarding the relationship between the forfeited property and the underlying offense (the instrumentality prong). If this threshold prong is satisfied, the next step of the analysis is a proportionality inquiry in which the value of the property sought to be forfeited is compared to the gravity of the underlying offense to determine whether the forfeiture is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense. A 71-year-old grandmother who owned the house in which she lived, and owned a 1997 Chevrolet minivan, suffered from blood clots in her lungs, was hospitalized, and released, ordered to bed rest. Her adult son and two grandchildren also lived in the house. The son sold drugs from the house and the van, without his mother’s knowledge. The Commonwealth filed a petition for forfeiture of the house and minivan, with the trial court determining there was a nexus between the seized house and violations of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (Drug Act). The trial court rejected the grandmother’s statutory innocent owner defense afforded by the Forfeiture Act because, after the police notified her of her son’s drug activities (through service of search warrants and personally informing her of the activities) she “refused to take any proactive measures or steps to demonstrate her lack of consent to this illegal activity. The Commonwealth Court reversed the trial court, concluding that the lower tribunal applied an erroneous standard for determining whether the forfeiture violated the Eighth Amendment, and that it failed to consider all relevant circumstances in rejecting the innocent owner defense. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed and affirmed the Commonwealth Court.