The state Senate Judiciary Committee heard arguments over a bill that would change the process by which law enforcement can seize and keep money or property believed to be connected to crime. There is bipartisan backing, in Pennsylvania and nationwide, to reform civil asset forfeiture. A recent poll shows that the more Pennsylvanians learn about the practice, the more they support changing it. Senate Bill 869 would require that a person be convicted of a crime before law enforcement can keep his or her property. Prosecutors contend civil asset forfeiture is a necessary tool and that revenue generated helps pay for the fight against drugs and crime.
In America, anyone charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty.
The Constitution says so, and in order to uphold and ensure that right, Pennsylvania’s civil forfeiture law needs to be reformed. Too many people are getting caught up in nets cast too wide by law enforcement officials.
Under current forfeiture law, law enforcement can seize, and ultimately keep, money or other assets thought to be connected to crime, even if the property’s owner is never charged with or convicted of a criminal offense.
The scourge of drugs and violence is devastating to families, communities and the country. It is beyond frustrating to police officers who are at risk fighting in the trenches and to prosecutors who are charged with seeking justice for all. We understand their frustration, but this does not excuse what critics have called “policing for profit.”
In Pennsylvania, state law stipulates that forfeiture revenue be used for fight drugs and other crime. The more money and property seized, the more funding and resources become available to law enforcement and prosecutors to cover the costs to police crime. That is fine, as long as the need for funding is not driving law enforcement to take money and property. Statewide, the yield from asset forfeiture is in the millions of dollars.
In addition to requiring a conviction before law enforcement can keep forfeited property, Sen. Mike Folmer, a Republican from Lebanon County, and Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat from Philadelphia, propose in Senate Bill 869 placing proceeds from forfeitures into a general fund, rather than letting them go to the district attorneys. At the county level, that means county commissioners, rather than the District Attorney’s office, would determine how the money is spent.
That is practical, and it would help avoid any perception of impropriety.
When members of the Lancaster County Drug Task Force raided the basement of a Manheim home in 2011, they charged Shawn Lee Campbell with possession of drugs with intent to distribute. Campbell, then 24 and living at the home, later pleaded guilty.
Task force members went upstairs, where they found Campbell’s mother, Theresa Campbell. Officers seized $300 they found in her purse, but they never pressed any charges against her.
Molly Tack-Hopper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told LNP 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,” she said.
Ill-gotten gains carry a stain. That is true for drug kingpins, the intended target of civil forfeiture law. And, it is true for those in law enforcement.
As the Fifth Amendment clearly states, it is wrong for anyone to be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law.”
Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, president of The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association told The Morning Call she opposes Senate Bill 869 but acknowledges the potential for asset forfeiture reform.
She has said prosecutors are interested in working with the Legislature to make reasonable changes to existing law.
With some compromise from both sides, civil forfeiture reform can be done in a way that benefits all of those affected by the war on drugs.
As LNP has said before, the appointment of an independent ombudsman can be made to review civil forfeitures and to streamline appeal procedures.
With that oversight, and changes proposed in Senate Bill 869 and House Bill 508, law enforcement can still be effective in fighting crime and in ensuring citizens’ rights are protected.