Our law firm represents individuals charged with a variety of crimes involving the possession and the possession with the intent to distribute or deliver controlled substances. These substances include illegal drugs and narcotics such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, and PCP. Our Philadelphia based criminal law firm defends individuals against these charges. This criminal defense representation sometimes includes appearing in a separate proceeding where the Commonwealth seeks to take property allegedly associated with the facilitation of the illegal activity. In most situations this property is cash or some type of currency, a vehicle, or a house. These are considerable assets and so our clients stand to lose a substantial amount of money.
The Innocent Owner Defense
Previously in Pennsylvania, the only defense available was that of an “innocent owner”. This defense, as the name implies, asserts that the actual owner of the vehicle was not aware that the accused or convicted person was using the vehicle or house to promote illegal activity. Obviously this defense isn’t available if the owner of the asset is also the accused or convicted person but in many situations criminal lawyers represent individuals who are either driving or living in homes in which they possess no ownership interest. Frequently, our criminal defense law firm represents parents whose children drive theses cars or live in these houses.
The Burden of Proof – Asset Forfeiture—No Conviction Is Necessary
It is important to keep in mind that the Commonwealth doesn’t need to obtain a conviction to be successful at asset forfeiture civil proceeding . While obviously a conviction is extremely helpful, it is not necessary. The standard of proof at as criminal trial is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt while at an civil forfeiture hearing it is preponderance. At these civil hearings the burden is on the Commonwealth to establish a nexus between the asset and a violation of the Pennsylvania Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act
Rebuttable Presumption & Your Defense
If the Commonwealth establishes this nexus it creates a rebuttable presumption which an owner can rebut through either an innocent owner defense which was explained above, or something else contained in their record which would rebut the presumption. This wasn’t always the case in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently found that a defendant could assert this other defense in addition to the traditional innocent owner defense.
In closing, remember that asset forfeiture can involve a vehicle, a home, or even cash. If you’ re a defendant faced with an asset forfeiture, it is very important that your criminal lawyer assess the circumstances surrounding your criminal activity and your asset. Your lawyer should focus on the proximity of the illegal activity to the asset. In the case of drugs found in the vehicle, your lawyer should focus on the position of the drugs in relation to the driver and the passengers.
If the drugs and other contraband were found on the person of the alleged suspects, it could help overcome the presumption that the owner knew that the car was being used to transport illegal narcotics. This is just one example to consider while formulating a proper defense.
In the case of your home, a criminal defense lawyer should evaluate who else resides in the property and again, where the contraband was located at the time of the arrest. Your attorney can use anything to rebut this presumption so it is very important that he or she provides the court with as much evidence as possible.
If you have more questions regarding asset forfeiture please contact our office.