Make punishment fit crime in law on forfeiture
The most striking thing about a drug case that has exposed the state's draconian property forfeiture law is that it is not even the most extreme example.
Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini recently called the state's civil asset forfeiture law a vehicle for "state-sanctioned theft." He ordered a lower court to re-examine the forfeiture case that led to the appeal.
The state attorney general's office might first appeal the case to the Supreme Court but it should refrain. Instead, the state Legislature should conduct a comprehensive examination of the law to make it fair.
State law allows authorities to seize any property involved in an illegal drug transaction, and requires only a summary judgment, meaning that a judge can approve a property seizure without so much as a hearing.
In 2009, police in State College arrested the owner of a gas station there for drug dealing. Authorities then moved for seizure of the gas station because the owner, Gregory Pallazzari, had used it to sell and store drugs. Pallazzari was convicted and sentenced to five to 10 years in prison.
The lack of due process inherent in seizing property without a hearing is reason enough for the Legislature to repair the law. The other problem is that, since law enforcement agencies receive a portion of the value of the seized property, they have an incentive beyond straight enforcement and deterrence to go after property.
In the Pallazzari case, attorney Steven Passarello argued that the value of the gas station was vastly disproportional to the level of the crime, and that authorities should not be allowed to seize its full value.
Lawmakers should require evidentiary hearings for civil asset property seizures and ensure that, as in criminal cases, the punishment fits the crime.