Pennsylvania Capitol

Both the Pennsylvania House and Senate set up measures this week to allow them to vote remotely, in response to COVID-19.

A state lawmaker wants to block police from seizing property and cash from suspects until after they’ve been convicted of drug crimes and prevent district attorneys from having sole discretion in how they spend proceeds of asset forfeiture.

Democratic Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia is seeking co-sponsors for a bill that would dramatically overhaul civil asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania at a time when courts have signaled deep skepticism over the controversial practice.

“These two reforms should put an end to abuses of the civil forfeiture statute and instead return the practice to its original intent: seizing the ill-gotten gains of convicted career criminals,” Williams wrote in a memo to fellow legislators.

Pros and cons

Police in Pennsylvania seize and spend millions of dollars in assets every year. Under state law, those proceeds are intended for use by police and prosecutors in enforcing drug laws and funding community programs.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association said forfeiture is an important tool in combating drug crime.

“Forfeiture ... takes away drug dealers' profits and their tools of crime, such as cash, cars and computers,” said Lindsay Vaughan, executive director of the association. “In turn, forfeiture is used to disrupt criminal activity and relieve communities of the danger of illegal drugs. The use of forfeiture proceeds is governed by statute to support safer streets, proactive policing and prevention and outreach programming.”

Critics, however, say there is not enough oversight or transparency in how the proceeds are being used and argue that only those convicted of drug crimes should have their belongings seized. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously curtailed state and local authorities’ power to seize property, saying it violates the constitutional protection against excessive fines.

“We're trying to take that perverse incentive away from prosecutors and police,” said Kyle Miller, the legislative director for Williams. “They have broad discretion for how they can spend that money and the system is really ripe for people who may be corrupt.”

Williams’ bill would require police to win criminal convictions before seizing property. It would also transfer proceeds to county general funds instead of allowing district attorneys to have sole oversight.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa is among the co-sponsors, but the bill’s fate is uncertain in a Republican-controlled Legislature. In the House, Republican Rep. Kerry Benninghoff has introduced legislation that would encourage the use of drug forfeiture money for school safety and security measures.

“District attorney’s offices across Pennsylvania are collectively in possession of millions of drug forfeiture dollars,” Benninghoff said in a written statement to LNP. “These dollars are to be used to combat crime, but current practice leaves way too much wiggle room as to what qualifies as an acceptable expense. We need better transparency.”

Local impact

In Lancaster County, District Attorney Craig Stedman’s use of drug forfeiture proceeds has come under scrutiny following reporting by LNP that revealed he had spent at least $21,000 intended for drug law enforcement to lease a sport-utility vehicle since 2016.

Republican Sen. Ryan Aument of Landisville, who is in leadership in his caucus, said LNP’s reporting “highlights the need for the Legislature to take a look at the statute in terms of transparency and holding officials accountable.”

He declined to comment on Stedman’s lease of a vehicle with drug forfeiture money but added he has always found Stedman to be a “person of integrity.”