This Bill Would Transform Civil Asset Forfeiture in Pa.

Two Pa. senators say that you should actually, y'know, be proven guilty before law enforcement can keep your stuff. Does the measure stand a chance?

Pennsylvania senators Mike Folmer and Anthony Williams have a crazy idea: They think a person should be convicted of a crime before the government is allowed to take their property for good.

Though this scenario may sound like something out of a libertarian’s fever dream, law enforcement authorities in Pennsylvania are currently allowed to seize and keep cars, cash and even real estate from residents if they simply believe their assets are connected to a crime — no conviction necessary. In fact, a person doesn’t even need to be charged with a crime to have their property taken from them.

The process is known as “civil-asset forfeiture,” and the American Civil Liberties Union says officials throughout the state have used it to seize more than $100 million worth of property in the last decade.

Folmer and Williams are introducing a bill today that would change the rules of the game. Under the proposal, authorities could still seize property before winning a conviction if they show probable cause that it is tied to a crime, according to a copy of the legislation provided by the ACLU (below). However, the bill would require a person to be convicted of a crime before law enforcement officials could permanently keep their property. 

Their legislation would also stipulate that all cash and proceeds from the seized property would go into the city’s or Pennsylvania’s general fund, depending on the circumstances, after any state debts or restitution is paid.

Of the nearly $17 million that Philadelphia collected from civil forfeitures between 2007 and 2010, “none of the proceeds were spent on community-based drug and crime fighting programs over the same period,” according to Folmer and Williams.

Though civil-asset forfeiture is a nationwide phenomenon, Philadelphia in particular has received media attention for having one of the most aggressive programs in the country. Isaiah Thompson wrote for City Paper in 2012 that Philly brought in more than $6 million annually from forfeiture, outpacing not only Pittsburgh but also larger cities:

The size of Philly’s forfeiture program isn’t just unprecedented within Pennsylvania. In 2010, for example, Kings County (Brooklyn), with a population 1.5 times that of Philadelphia, reported taking by forfeiture about $1.2 million in assets — less than one-fifth of what Philly took. Los Angeles County, with a population more than six-and-a-half times Philadelphia’s, also successfully sued to keep just $1.2 million in seized assets.

Thompson reported that Philadelphia also stands out because it goes after very small amounts of cash:

In 2010, for example, Los Angeles County’s 48 successful forfeiture cases raised about $25,000 per case. In the same year, the Philadelphia District Attorney filed more than 8,000 forfeiture cases for currency alone, for an average of just $550. In a sample of more than 100 cases from 2011 and 2012 reviewed by City Paper, the median amount was only $178. In many of these cases, the Philadelphia District Attorney sued to seize amounts less than $100.

But does the proposal by Folmer and Williams stand a chance? One thing going for it is that it’s bipartisan. Williams is a Democrat, while Folmer is a Republican who recently succeeded in getting a bill passed in the Senate to legalize medical marijuana — no small task in a GOP-controlled chamber that represents a largely traditional state.

But the civil-forfeiture reform legislation would likely hit government officials where it hurts most — in their budgets. Between 2007 and 2010, Philadelphia spent almost $9 million in proceeds from forfeitures on salaries.

It could also face resistance by district attorneys, which are a powerful and politically difficult group to oppose.

They argue not only that judges must sign off on the seizures, but also that forfeiture laws allow them to fund crime-fighting programs and take assets from drug dealers.

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