Civil Asset Forfeiture, the controversial practice wherein the police can confiscate property without a warrant or conviction, is facing a much needed overhaul in Pennsylvania. Senators Mike Folmer and Anthony Williams have introduced SB 869, a bill which would bring Pennsylvania on par with states like New Mexico and Montana.
The Keystone State has struggled with asset forfeitures for too long. Though initially intentioned to prevent drug traffickers from keeping their profits, it has since metastasized into a law enforcement mechanism that creates incentives for police to take and keep property from people without charging them with a crime. Just in the last ten years, Pennsylvania has raked in more than $100 million from seized assets.
What’s more, people under the current regime are liable to lose their homes if someone (not necessarily the owners) does drugs on the property. Last year, a couple lost their house after police arrested their son for possessing “$40 worth of heroin.”
A review of the assets forfeited from 2011 to 2012 revealed that the median amount seized was around $180; not enough for people to go to court over. As a result, it is unusual for the forfeitures to be contested. Over 1,000 houses have already been taken by authorities over the course of a decade, to be used by the very organizations that took them.
The new law would upend that status quo.
Firstly, property would not be forfeited until the proprietor is convicted of a crime. This seemingly common-sense point is long overdue, and ensures that due process is observed when stripping someone of their belongings.
The next major development is the removal of any sort of profit incentive for the seizures. By directing the funds forfeited into the state’s general fund, the state legislature regains oversight over the assets that authorities seize.
Equitable sharing, which allows local police to circumvent state laws, is also curtailed by the new law. It is a federal procedure by which local police can use federal asset forfeiture rules to seize property and receive up to 80% of the value back.
By using equitable sharing, Pennsylvania authorities were able to score over $50 million from 2000 to 2008, racking up an average of almost $6 million per year. It is unjustifiable to have such a lax legal regime be imposed on states which may not want to be a part of the federal government’s asset forfeiture rules, and Pennsylvania has a shot at fixing that particular situation.
The effort to reform asset forfeiture has also been applauded by the Coalition for Public Safety, of which ATR is a member. Legislators in Pennsylvania should seize this opportunity to fix their asset forfeiture regime and set a precedent for other states looking to do the same.