A new poll out by a group that wants to “fix forfeiture” in Pennsylvania shows widespread, bipartisan support for limiting law enforcement’s ability to seize and keep cash and other assets thought connected to crime.
The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Virginia, found that nearly 8 in 10 respondents backed reforms to Pennsylvania’s “civil asset forfeiture” laws, which permits law enforcement to seize property from a citizens who in some cases may never have been charged with or convicted of any crime.
The survey also indicated that Pennsylvania voters are more likely to vote for legislators who back reform than those who oppose it.
Fix Forfeiture, a bipartisan group comprised of eight sponsors, including the ACLU, FreedomWorks and the NAACP, hopes the polling will provide some momentum for a state Senate bill proposing reforms to the forfeiture process. Senate Bill 869 would require a person to be convicted of a crime before law enforcement can seize and keep his or her assets.
The bill will get a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.
The poll found that only about one-quarter of Pennsylvanians surveyed had ever heard the term “civil asset forfeiture.” But once they learned details about the law, 79 percent of those polled said they think it needs to be reformed.
That support cut across party lines. “It was really stunning to see how broad the support for reform is,” said Jim Hobart, pollster for Public Opinion Strategies. “We don’t get this type of bipartisan support on any issue these days.”
Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said that in Philadelphia, one-third of cash seized by law enforcement comes “from people not found guilty of a related crime. And of those innocent owners, 71 percent were African-American” — in a city where just 44 percent of the population is black.
“The same patterns play out in county after county,” said Tack-Hooper, who added that the ACLU will soon be releasing a new report detailing the breakdown in counties outside Philadelphia.
Current forfeiture law, she said, is “fundamentally not a good tool for targeting drug dealers,” because “the system does not do a good job of distinguishing between drug dealers and innocent people.”
In Lancaster County, civil asset forfeitures generated $895,273 for the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office in fiscal year that ended in June 2014, according to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office.
Over the past four years, forfeitures have generated $3.26 million here, the fourth-highest total of any county in the state.
The money is used to fund the Lancaster County Drug Task Force and pays for police training, education and other expenses.
Holly Harris, Executive Director of Fix Forfeiture, said some district attorneys across the state worry that the reforms proposed in Pennsylvania Senate Bill 869, and a companion House bill, HB 508, could hinder their ability to fight crime.
“But this bill (SB 869) just protects innocent property owners,” she said. “We’re not talking about shutting down asset forfeiture. We’re just saying too many innocent property owners are being involved in this process.
Senate Bill 869 would also mandate that all forfeiture proceeds be deposited into a general government fund, instead of going directly to law enforcement, as is now the case.
The bill will get a hearing in Harrisburg Oct. 20.