A recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court clarified certain procedural requirements in civil forfeiture cases. In Commonwealth v. Allen, __ A.3d __ (No. 40 EAP 2013, filed December 29, 2014), the Supreme Court held that a criminal defendant must file a stand-alone motion for return of property under Pa. R.Crim.P. 588 while the trial court has jurisdiction, which is up to 30 days after a final disposition, including the dismissal of charges. In so holding, the Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s order denying relief to appellee Todd Allen, who sought the return of $1,060 in cash seized from his person when he was arrested on drug charges that were later dismissed. The Supreme Court rejected the analysis of the Commonwealth Court, which declined to follow Superior Court precedent and applied a residual six-year statute of limitations to Allen’s claim.
Writing for the majority, Justice Baer rejected the Commonwealth Court’s statute of limitations analysis and applied the waiver analysis articulated in Commonwealth v. Setzer, 392 A.2d 772 (Pa. Super. 1978). The Court limited its holding to cases where the property owner is the criminal defendant, saving for another day the issue of when a third-party must assert a claim of ownership. Two justices dissented. Justice Saylor expressed concern about the majority’s failure to require any process to ensure that property is appropriately seized before it is automatically transferred to the Commonwealth after the 30-day limitations period. During that time the defendant will likely be more concerned with avoiding punishment than the return of his property. Further, Justice Saylor disagreed with the majority’s waiver analysis because there was no earlier in rem proceeding relative to the seized property, only the criminal matter, which is a distinct type of proceeding. Justice Todd joined Justice Saylor’s dissent and wrote separately to emphasize that the majority’s construction of Rule 588 effectively creates a new substantive right of ownership of seized property in the Commonwealth under the circumstances presented in this case, which conflicts with the jurisprudential axiom that rules are to be construed only to effectuate the exercise of substantive rights.