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6 Jun 2015

Reforms aim to end Pennsylvania civil forfeiture abuses

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June 6, 2015 Category: Local Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  New legislation just introduced to the Pennsylvania state Senate would require a criminal conviction before police could take ownership of assets. According to the ACLU, a study of more than 300 cases found a third of the cash and property was taken from people who had not been convicted of anything.  (Graph courtesy of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.)

Police departments in Pennsylvania are taking millions of dollars of property every year from people who haven’t been convicted of any crime – but lawmakers from both parties are backing legislation to change that.

Civil liberties groups say civil asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania at the state and local level has totaled $25 million in a single year.

Andy Hoover, legislative director with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says Senate Bill 869 would require a criminal conviction before police can take ownership of money or property. He says people are often amazed how often that doesn’t happen now.

“In Philadelphia, in over 300 cases we randomly selected, one third of those cases did not involve a conviction of the property owner,” he says. “This is a real problem.”

According to the analysis by the state ACLU, asset forfeiture lands hardest on African-American communities and the poor. Hoover describes this as a basic violation of due process rights.

“That’s why this reform that’s being introduced is so important,” says Hoover. “It will ensure people’s due process rights are protected, and that their property rights are protected by requiring a conviction before their property is forfeited.”

According to Hoover, since police departments get the proceeds of forfeitures, they have an incentive to do more of it.

Hoover says one provision of the new legislation would route forfeiture money to the general fund of the overseeing governmental body, the county, or the commonwealth – and this would help remove any profit motive. He also says requiring criminal guilt would mean police could still have civil asset forfeiture as a crime-fighting tool, while reducing the abuse.

“They can still use this tool, but they will have to get a conviction,” he says. “When people they hear about this, they respond, ‘This is just common sense. Of course you should convict someone of a crime before you take their property.’”

Police contend civil asset forfeiture is an important crime-fighting tool. But Hoover says it’s reached the point where police and district attorneys now expect those funds to be built into annual budgets.

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