HOLLIDAYSBURG - A Commonwealth Court ruling this week will make it more difficult for prosecutors to take property and money from criminal defendants, particularly those involved in drug distribution, Blair County Assistant District Attorney Russell Montgomery said Friday.
In an opinion written by Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini, forfeiture proceedings in which the prosecution confiscates money and property used in crimes have until this point been considered civil proceedings.
Forfeitures now should be looked at as "quasi-criminal" in nature, requiring a hearing or possibly even a jury trial, before the government has the right to take what is considered "contraband," the ruling stated.
"Given the quasi-criminal nature of the forfeiture proceeding, Pennsylvania courts have often stated that notice and opportunity to be heard as provided in the Forfeiture Act guard against those proceedings from amounting to little more than state-sanctioned theft," Pellegrini wrote.
The ruling is going to cause a lot more work, said Montgomery, who handles forfeitures for the DA's office.
The cases are now considered civil in nature, with the prosecution requesting the court to turn over cars, buildings, money or other items typically involved in crime, Montgomery said.
If the defendant, who is often in jail, decides not to answer the petition, the prosecution files for a summary judgment, meaning the petition is granted without hearing.
The new forfeiture cases will be in addition to a trial or other criminal proceedings the defendant has before the courts.
There have been 82 forfeiture cases filed so far this year, according to the Blair County Prothonotary's office. There were 179 last year, 55 in 2010 and 34 in 2009.
Blair County has had an explosion of cases in the past two years because of a backlog that had accumulated.
The Commonwealth Court case involved the forfeiture by a summary judgment of Greg's Sunoco, 605 University Drive, State College.
Gregory Palazzari owned the business, worth several hundred thousand dollars, according to police. Palazzari was charged with selling cocaine, storing cocaine and holding meetings with his supplier at the business.
He was convicted and sentenced to prison. The conviction was followed by a petition filed by Senior Deputy Attorney General Robert Stewart to forfeit the business, and it was granted.
Blair County attorney Steven P. Passarello entered the case and challenged the forfeiture of the business, contending it was actually owned by Santina Palazzari, Gregory's mother, a position with which Stewart disagreed.
The Sunoco Service Station continues under the ownership of the Palazzari family, Passarello said.
Passarello was the attorney last year when an Altoona marijuana dealer objected to the confiscation of his home, cars and almost $300,000 found in his home.
Passarello said he has long argued that forfeitures should be considered criminal proceedings, which means a property owner should have a hearing and that civil rules should not apply.
Under civil court rules, the prosecution can demand that the defendant answer many questions that he would have to answer under the rules of criminal court.
Passarello said he does not believe the ruling will be retroactive.
The state Attorney General's Office may appeal to the state Supreme Court. A decision on an appeal
hasn't been made and Attorney General Linda Kelly didn't have any comment Friday on the ruling, spokesman Nils Fredricksen said.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.