The state must demonstrate more than an incidental relationship between a piece of property and an individual’s illegal drug activity in order to justify the forfeiture of the property, the Commonwealth Court has ruled.

A split three-judge panel issued an Oct. 31 memorandum in Commonwealth v. Teeter finding that the state lacked sufficient evidence to seize the home in which Russell Teeter was convicted of drug-related offenses following a controlled buy organized by police.

“It is a serious matter to confiscate any citizen’s personal residence, as this court and our Supreme Court have acknowledged on more than one occasion,” President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote for the 2-1 majority. “It is serious enough that Congress requires that the homeowner be represented by counsel in a federal civil forfeiture. The commonwealth’s evidence must be factual and show a causal, not a merely incidental, relationship between the house and the violations of the Drug Act. Patrolman Bowers’ conclusory opinion was not a substitute for this necessary evidence.”

Jeffrey Bowers was one of the policemen who executed a search warrant on Teeter’s house in March 2014 after a confidential informant purchased methamphetamine from Teeter. The search recovered drugs, paraphernalia and firearms, leading Teeter to plead guilty to drug-related charges, Leavitt said. After he was sentenced, the state filed a petition for the forfeiture of his home.

Teeter appeared pro se at the forfeiture hearing, and Bowers was the state’s sole witness, stating, “in conclusory fashion,” that a cellphone confiscated at the house revealed conversations relating to the sale of drugs, Leavitt said. Bowers opined that a list of Teeter’s prior arrests contributed to his conclusion that there was a relationship between the drug sales and the house, but, Leavitt noted, the list was never admitted into evidence. Teeter testified that he is a drug addict, not a dealer, and that the contraband was for personal use.

The trial court granted the forfeiture petition.

On appeal, Teeter argued the state failed to prove his home facilitated illegal drug trafficking, and Leavitt agreed, rejecting the trial court’s decision that there was a “clear nexus” between the house and the sale of drugs.

“Given the charge to construe strictly the words of the Forfeiture Act and the heightened concern where the forfeiture of a personal residence is concerned, we hold that the term ‘facilitate’ means that the commonwealth must show that the house to be forfeited is the instrumentality of the offense,” Leavitt said.

In Teeter’s case, without the evidence of his prior arrests or testimony specifying how the house was implicated in those prior charges, there was no foundation for the trial court’s finding that the home was the site of prior drug sales.

“That Teeter had a roof over his head during the period he possessed drugs, for some purpose, does not mean that his house facilitated his Drug Act violations,” Leavitt said.

Given that the house was, “at most, incidental” to the single drug transaction preceding the forfeiture petition, there was nothing to justify it being granted, she said.

“Where the commonwealth has initiated the illegal drug transaction, it cannot be automatically inferred that the house chosen for the transaction has facilitated the offense,” Leavitt said.

Judge Patricia A. McCullough issued a dissenting opinion.

Christine Holman of the Schuylkill County District Attorney’s Office, who represented the state, did not return a call for comment.

Contact managing editor Zack Needles at zneedles@alm.com.