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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of a Philadelphia burglary defendant who sought the return of jewelry he was wearing when arrested but that authorities could not connect directly to any crime. A split en banc Commonwealth Court panel ruled earlier this year that John Singleton was not entitled to the return of a Gucci watch and a gold-colored bracelet for which he couldn’t provide receipts. Authorities also couldn’t identify the watch and bracelet as items stolen from local burglary victims. Police, however, were able to match other jewelry seized from Singleton to burglary victims, The Legal previously reported. According to court records, Singleton was arrested in January 2003 and ultimately pleaded guilty to four burglaries in January 2004. He was sentenced to serve five years in state prison. While Singleton sought the return of the jewelry, prosecutors filed a forfeiture petition over the pieces of jewelry that could not be identified as stolen. The Supreme Court granted allocatur in Ex Rel John Singleton v. Johnson on Dec. 12. Defendants have faced an uphill battle under recent Commonwealth Court precedent in fighting the forfeiture of items seized during criminal investigations. Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 588 allows criminal defendants to seek the return of property, and judges must order the return of property unless it is proven that it is contraband. In granting allocatur, the high court rephrased the question raised by Singleton’s attorneys on appeal to read: “Whether the commonwealth can prevail in a common law forfeiture matter where it did not offer evidence that the items petitioner sought to have returned were linked to the crimes to which he plead guilty?” The five-judge Commonwealth Court majority decided July 5 that forfeiture of the jewelry was appropriate because a nexus had been established by the authorities between the jewelry and criminal activity by Singleton. Singleton then faced the burden to establish 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,” Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote at the time. In a two-judge dissent, Judge Rochelle S. Friedman said that inference of criminal activity was not the same thing as proven facts, so forfeiture of the jewelry was not reasonable. Pellegrini was joined by President Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter and Judges Doris A. Smith-Ribner, Robert Simpson and Mary Hannah Leavitt. Friedman was joined by Judge James Gardner Colins. The property at issue in the case is not a big deal, but “the legal issues may have some significant legal impact,” said Karl Baer, chief of the appeals division for the Defender Association of Philadelphia. In the brief prepared by Assistant Defender L. Roy Zipris, Zipris argued that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office did not offer evidence that the jewelry in question were proceeds from a burglary and that more than suspicion was needed to result in forfeiture of the items. “Fundamental to the law of forfeiture in Pennsylvania is the tenet that, consistent with the due process clauses of the United States and Pennsylvania constitutions, the commonwealth cannot deprive a person of his property without proving that the property was derived from or knowingly used to further criminal activity,” Zipris wrote. Zipris said Singleton was not brought from prison for the forfeiture hearing. Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Joyce S. Kean ruled that Singleton’s legal ownership was not established with receipts and that the items were therefore forfeited. “It was error � and unfair � to affirm the forfeiture order merely on conjecture that two pieces of jewelry worn by the defendant are tainted by mere proximity to another, identifiable item of contraband,” Zipris wrote. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office could not be reached for comment yesterday afternoon.

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