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A convicted Philadelphia burglar who insisted up and down that two pieces of jewelry he was wearing when arrested were acquired legally isn’t entitled to the property, a split en banc Commonwealth Court panel has ruled. John Singleton couldn’t produce receipts for the Gucci watch and gold-colored bracelet in question, and the authorities couldn’t match those two items to local burglary victims, as they were able to do with virtually every other piece of jewelry seized from his possession as a result of his arrest. Affirming Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Joyce S. Kean, the five-judge majority in Ex Rel John Singleton v. Johnson concluded that forfeiture of the watch and bracelet was proper because the prosecution had established a nexus between the jewelry and Singleton’s criminal activities. “Once the nexus was established,” Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote on behalf of the majority, “the burden shifted back to Singleton to establish that the property did not have a criminal nexus. Without offering any evidence of lawful possession, besides his claim of ownership, Singleton failed to meet his burden.” Pellegrini was joined by President Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter and Judges Doris A. Smith-Ribner, Robert Simpson and Mary Hannah Leavitt. Judge James Gardner Colins joined in a dissent filed by Judge Rochelle S. Friedman. “The commonwealth concedes that it produced no direct evidence of a nexus between the [watch and bracelet] and criminal activity, but the commonwealth argues that one can reasonably infer the nexus from proven facts,” Friedman wrote. “However, there are no proven facts here; thus, there can be no reasonable inferences.” According to state records, Singleton, now 54, was arrested in late 2002 and ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of burglary in early 2004. He is serving a five-year-maximum sentence at SCI-Graterford, a maximum-security facility in Montgomery County. When he was arrested, the watch and bracelet in question were on Singleton’s person, according to Pellegrini’s opinion. The police eventually seized from Singleton other pieces of jewelry that could be traced back to specific burglaries, but the ownership of the watch and bracelet remained in dispute. In officially requesting return of those items, Singleton argued that he had bought the watch and bracelet, but acknowledged he could not produce any documents proving his ownership. The prosecution responded by filing a forfeiture petition covering those pieces of jewelry. “The trial court concluded that the commonwealth met its burden by demonstrating that a nexus existed between the jewelry and the burglaries, as evidenced by his guilty pleas, and noted that Singleton offered no evidence that the jewelry ‘was obtained through gainful employment or other legitimate sources,’” Pellegrini wrote. Pellegrini’s review of recent Pennsylvania forfeiture cases suggested that forfeitures are most commonly challenged when cash is seized following a suspected drug deal. In some cases, he wrote, the state Supreme Court has denied forfeiture when the nexus between the cash and alleged drug deal is deemed too tenuous. But in their 2005 opinion in Commonwealth v. $6,425.00 Seized From Esquilin, the justices chose to reverse the Commonwealth Court and allow forfeiture of cash from a Philadelphia man who, though arrested with no drugs on his person, was believed by police to be ferrying cash as part of a sidewalk drug-dealing operation. “What these cases teach us,” Pellegrini wrote, “is that to seize property, there has to be some nexus to known criminal activity.” But Friedman and Colins were not convinced that such a nexus had been established in Singleton. Friedman wrote that trial judge Kean had approved the forfeiture based on a prosecutor’s statements in court – which can’t be considered as evidence under Pennsylvania law. She also reasoned that the prosecution had a burden to prove a “specific nexus” between the watch and bracelet and any criminal activity perpetrated by Singleton. “The commonwealth could only suspect that Singleton committed some other unknown burglary or burglaries and that the watch and bracelet were stolen in the commission of those crimes,” she wrote. Singleton’s attorney in the matter, L. Roy Zipris of Philadelphia’s Defender Association, said he will be appealing the decision to the state Supreme Court. “How do you forfeit something just on the suspicion that it’s part of a treasure trove of booty?” Zipris said. “It’s a shame that courts are willing to make decisions on the basis of conjecture, and not evidence.” But Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Peter Carr applauded the majority for realizing “that when you find gold trinkets in a jewel thief’s pile of loot, it’s reasonable to infer that the trinkets are themselves stolen.” (Copies of the 17-page opinion in Ex Rel John Singleton v. Johnson , PICS No. 07-1039, are available from The Legal Intelligencer . Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information. Some cases are not available until 1 p.m.)

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