Commonwealth v. One 2001 Toyota Camry, 030806 PACCA, 803 CD 2005

Docket Nº:803 CD 2005
Party Name:Commonwealth v. One 2001 Toyota Camry
Case Date:March 08, 2006
Court:Court of Appeals of Pennsylvania
 
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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Appellant

v.

One 2001 Toyota Camry (Joel Sandler)

No. 803 C.D. 2005

Court of Appeals of Pennsylvania

March 8, 2006

Submitted: December 14, 2005

BEFORE: HONORABLE JAMES GARDNER COLINS, President Judge, BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge, DORIS A. SMITH-RIBNER, Judge, DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge, ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Judge, BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Judge, ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge

OPINION

SMITH-RIBNER, Judge

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appeals from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County that denied the Commonwealth's petition to forfeit a 2001 Toyota Camry (Vehicle) owned by Joel Sandler (Sandler). The Commonwealth contends that the trial court erred in concluding that the Vehicle is not derivative contraband subject to forfeiture, as it was used to commit the crime of solicitation of murder, and that the trial court abused its discretion in concluding that forfeiture would be unreasonable due to the tenuous nexus between the Vehicle and Sandler's criminal activity.

On January 16, 2003, Sandler was convicted of criminal solicitation to commit murder and criminal use of communication facility, see Sections 902 and 7512 of the Crimes Code, 18 Pa. C.S. §§902 and 7512, respectively, after his attempt to hire a hit man to kill his wife. He was sentenced to an aggregate term of eight and one-half to twenty-five years. On April 29, 2003, the Commonwealth filed a petition to forfeit Sandler's Vehicle seized on April 26, 2001 following his arrest; the Commonwealth alleged that the Vehicle was used in the perpetration of criminal solicitation to commit murder and therefore was derivative contraband subject to forfeiture under Pa. R. Crim. P. 588 (Rule 588) and under common law. In his answer and new matter, Sandler requested the trial court to postpone acting on the petition pending his appeal from the underlying convictions, which were ultimately affirmed. Sandler thereafter filed a pro se amended answer alleging that the Commonwealth was not authorized to seize the Vehicle along with his other personal items and that the Vehicle was not derivative contraband. The trial court denied the petition on January 24, 2005 after a hearing at which the court heard from Detective Eric Echevarri (Echevarri) and from Sandler. The trial court later vacated its findings of fact and conclusions of law but reissued its findings and conclusions on March 17, 2005 as addendum two to its original decision.

The trial court made the following relevant findings and conclusions. In early 2001 Sandler desired to have his wife killed. In March 2001 Echevarria, posing as a contract killer for hire, called Sandler at his home to arrange a meeting. On March 28 Sandler drove the Vehicle to meet Echevarria at a restaurant, but negotiations took place in the Vehicle at Echevarria's suggestion. In April 2001 the detective made many calls to Sandler's residence, and on April 26 they met again at the restaurant. Sandler expressed his suspicion that Echevarria might be a police officer and stated "Let's hold off." It appearing that further contact would be unproductive, the detective arrested Sandler and charged him with solicitation to commit murder and six counts of criminal use of a communication facility.

The trial court additionally found that the Vehicle was not a necessary component of Sandler's criminality, that he could have committed the crimes without using a vehicle, that the Vehicle was only marginally involved in his overall criminal activity, that it was not admitted into evidence at the criminal trial, that its use did not cause actual harm or injury to any person or property and that a forfeiture would be unreasonable. The trial court concluded that no statutory authority existed for forfeiture of the Vehicle, that common law forfeiture is not favored in the law, that the Commonwealth failed to establish a sufficient nexus between the Vehicle and Sandler's underlying crimes so as to render the Vehicle derivative contraband and that even if it were considered derivative contraband forfeiture would be not be reasonable. The trial court entered its order denying the petition and directing that the Vehicle be returned to Sandler.1

Forfeiture proceedings are deemed civil in form but quasi-criminal in character. Commonwealth v. 502-504 Gordon Street, 607 A.2d 839 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1992), aff'd, 535 Pa. 515, 636 A.2d 626 (1994). In a forfeiture action, the Commonwealth has the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence that a nexus exists between the subject unlawful activity and the property sought to be forfeited. Commonwealth v. One (1) 1993 Pontiac Trans AM, 809 A.2d 444 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2002). In Pennsylvania forfeiture is basically statutory in nature. 502-504 Gordon Street. Acknowledging that no statutory authority exists to forfeit Sandler's Vehicle, the Commonwealth argues instead that the Vehicle is derivative contraband subject to forfeiture under common law.2

Two distinct types of contraband exist: contraband per se and derivative contraband. Commonwealth v. Fassnacht, 369 A.2d 800 (Pa. Super...

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