How Penn­syl­va­nia cops prey on pri­vate property

The Southern Berks News - - OPINION - Ron­ald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on pub­lic pol­icy is­sues for the DKT Lib­erty Project, a Wash­ing­ton-based civil lib­er­ties or­ga­ni­za­tion.

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.

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