How Pennsylvania cops prey on private property
Public funding of law enforcement agencies and the courts is meant to promote a fair and publicly accountable justice system. Yet more than 60 law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania are undermining public trust as they rake in big bucks from the seizure and forfeiture of private property.
Officially known as “civil asset forfeiture,” federal law allows local and state police officers to seize your cash, car or other private property on the mere suspicion that it is somehow connected to criminal activity — and without ever convicting or even charging you with a crime. The property is then turned over to the federal Department of Justice for proceedings under lax federal civil forfeiture laws — not under often more stringent state forfeiture laws. This stacks the deck against private property owners.
In addition, federal “equitable sharing” rules allow Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds recovered from the forfeited property.
This federal gravy train is too tempting for some police departments to resist. Pennsylvania state and local law enforcement agencies fattened their budgets in 2016 by more than $10 million through this practice.
County district attorneys were first in line. The Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office had a really big year, with $2.9 million in forfeiture proceeds.
All other county district attorneys, combined, took in another $1.2 million, including $126,856 going to the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office and $312,377 to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General.
The Pennsylvania State police collected more than $970,000 from forfeited property and the Philadelphia Amtrak Police Department $910,571.
Elsewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, agencies receiving forfeited funds included the: Philadelphia Police Department, $434,753; Lansdale Borough police Department, $85,162; Cumru Township Police Department, $134,785; and the Allentown Police Department, $161,393.
A substantial portion of these amounts are taken from completely innocent Pennsylvania residents who cannot afford the legal representation needed to get their money and property back. The poor are hit the hardest.
What to do? According to the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public-interest law firm, Pennsylvania lawmakers should follow the lead set by New Mexico and end asset forfeiture property seizures.
The state of New Mexico acquires provisional title to all property seized by state or local law enforcement agencies. Provisional title authorizes the state to hold and protect the property.
New Mexico law enforcement agencies are not permitted to directly or indirectly transfer seized property to a federal law enforcement authority or other federal agency unless the value of the property exceeds $50,000 or the alleged crime is interstate in nature or sufficiently complex to justify transfer.
A person’s property is subject to forfeiture only after he or she is convicted, by clear and convincing evidence, in a state criminal court, of an offense to which forfeiture applies.
Law enforcement agencies cannot retain forfeited property. Forfeited currency and proceeds of the sale of forfeited property must be deposited in the state’s general fund.
Placing similar restrictions on Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies would rebuild trust.
Property owners in Pennsylvania would no longer wonder if their law enforcement officials are following even-handed, dueprocess procedures, or padding their agency’s budgets at the citizens’ expense.