The Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office must disclose more information about its troubled drug asset forfeiture program, according to a Commonwealth Court ruling Tuesday in favor of LNP | LancasterOnline.
The three-judge panel ruled the office must disclose the names of people who won public auctions of seized assets. Former District Attorney Craig Stedman, now a Common Pleas Court judge, fought for years to keep details of the program secret, including his use of program funds to lease an SUV.
“We’re pleased that Commonwealth Court agrees with LNP | LancasterOnline and the Institute for Justice that these records are a matter of great public interest and ought to be available for inspection by all citizens,” said executive editor Tom Murse.
“We look forward to using these public records, once shielded from public view by the former district attorney, to report more thoroughly on how Lancaster County uses civil-asset forfeiture. The court’s ruling is a victory for transparency in government and, thus, a victory for all citizens of Pennsylvania,” Murse said.
LNP | LancasterOnline reporter Carter Walker revealed in 2019 that Stedman had used $21,000 in seized assets to lease an SUV for himself, which the county commissioners called “improper” at the time. In June, Stedman’s successor, Heather Adams, said that $150,000 had gone missing from the program in what “appears in every aspect to be an internal theft.” The program’s director was fired in March. Adams did not respond to requests for comment.
Walker’s reporting has taken place amid increased scrutiny of asset-forfeiture programs by civil liberties advocates and journalists across the country. In Philadelphia, a 2018 investigation by public radio station WHYY found the district attorney’s office allowed police to buy properties seized in drug busts that sometimes involved small amounts of narcotics.
Stedman had argued that disclosing the names of who won his office’s public auctions for seized items would put them at risk, an argument the judges rejected Tuesday. Anyone can attend the auctions themselves, including the owners of the forfeited property, the judges noted in their ruling.
“On the other hand, there is a significant public interest in ensuring that law enforcement officials not participate as bidders in the auction to their personal benefit,” the judges wrote.
The ruling paves the way for deeper scrutiny of similar programs across the state, said Kirby West, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit that argued the case for LNP | LancasterOnline.
“Today’s ruling is a win for transparency and the right of Pennsylvanians to know what happens when law enforcement takes property,” said institute attorney Kirby West. “This victory means Carter and LNP will now be able to shed light on forfeiture practices and hold officials accountable in Lancaster County. And it will allow other members of the media and the public throughout Pennsylvania to request similar records to uncover forfeiture abuses in their own communities.”