Court: Pennsylvania Has No Common Law Asset Forfeiture

In a case involving the state’s attempt to confiscate a man’s handgun following his conviction for disorderly conduct, the intermediate appellate Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has ruled that asset forfeiture is not a part of the state’s common law:

We conclude that common law forfeiture, as that concept originated and developed in England, was never incorporated into or became part of our Commonwealth’s common law tradition. Based upon our research, the Commonwealth’s organic law, namely Article 9, Sections 18 and 19 of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790, denounces and effectively abolishes any notion of common law forfeiture and that the predominate, if not unanimous, weight of the authority has determined that common law forfeiture never made it across the seas to America. Therefore, absent a statute that specifically authorizes the forfeiture of property, the Commonwealth and the courts have no authority to seek and order forfeiture of [property not unlawful to own in itself, but used in perpetration of an unlawful act].

And that should bring the Keystone State (finally) in line with the general view of American courts: while most states long ago rejected the traditions of English royal governance and required a statutory basis for forfeitures, Pennsylvania had been an exception, thanks to three decisions by its Superior Court in the 1980s that approved seizures on a so-called common law theory.  No more. 

The practical result is that law enforcement in Pennsylvania — as is the norm in other states — must either point to an authorizing statute or hand a seized item back.