If the state Supreme Court decides that common-law forfeiture does not exist in Pennsylvania, criminals convicted of gun violence will have an easier time taking back their firearms and child pornographers would also be able to repossess the camera equipment and devices they used in committing their crimes, the Adams County district attorney told a full complement of the court Wednesday.
Adams County District Attorney Brian Sinnett made the arguments in Commonwealth v. Irland in an effort to overturn the Commonwealth Court’s January decision that said the state government has no legal basis, absent statutory authority, for seizing so-called derivative contraband.
According to Sinnett, that decision went against decades of precedent established at almost every level of the state judiciary.
“To do so they ignored decades of their own precedent, decades of Superior Court precedent,” he said, adding that it also went against the Pennsylvania Constitution and rules outlined by the Supreme Court.
According to the en banc Commonwealth Court panel that reached that decision, defendant Justen Irland was arrested in Adams County for brandishing his handgun at a driver who was tailgating his vehicle. Authorities confiscated Irland’s gun and charged him with simple assault, harassment, disorderly conduct as a third-degree misdemeanor, and disorderly conduct as a summary offense.
Irland pleaded guilty to the summary offense of disorderly conduct and was order to pay a $200 fine, after which he filed a motion for return of his gun. The state, however, filed a motion for forfeiture and destruction of the gun based on a theory of common-law forfeiture, saying it had legal authority to confiscate any property with a substantial “‘nexus’” to the crime committed, according to court papers. Adams County Court of Common Pleas Judge Thomas R. Campbell agreed and ordered the gun destroyed.
In its Jan. 13 opinion, the Commonwealth Court, however, found that common-law forfeiture is a concept that has never legally existed in Pennsylvania or, for that matter, America.
Chief Justice Thomas Saylor asked Sinnett why the court shouldn’t find, as courts in many other states have found, that forfeiture is a “creature of statute.”
Sinnett said the court could find that way, but, he said, this case had a unique posture that would not allow for such a holding. He also said there is a long history of common-law forfeiture in Pennsylvania.
“I don’t believe any legislation is required to recognize common law that’s been recognized and upheld by the appellate courts,” he said.
Sean A. Mott of the Adams County Public Defender’s Office, who represented Irland before the justices, noted the numerous laws in existence already deal with forfeiture. He specifically cited a civil asset forfeiture bill Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law in June.
“Recognizing common-law forfeiture would essentially make redundant all the efforts the legislature made,” Mott said.
Justice Max Baer, however, asked Mott how he would respond to the concerns Sinnett raised about making it easier for convicted criminals to repossess the means of their crime.
Mott replied that the issue was one for the legislature to consider, not the courts.