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The main principle behind civil asset forfeiture reform legislation introduced in both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly is widely embraced by voters in the Commonwealth, according to a survey released on Thursday. The legislation would require a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited to the state. Currently, a property owner does not even have to be charged with a crime before their property can subject to forfeiture.
Pennsylvania's forfeiture laws undermine due process and property rights. Property merely suspected of a connection to illicit activity can be subjected to forfeiture based on a very low standard of evidence. The burden of proof falls on the property owner, who may never be charged with a crime.
House Bill 508 and Senate Bill 869, which are identical pieces of legislation, would offer crucial protections to innocent property owners. The bills eliminate civil forfeiture by requiring a conviction as a prerequisite before the government can seek forfeiture of an individual's property and rein in abuse of federal forfeiture laws by applying the same standard.
Reforms are overdue. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania analyzed the use of the Commonwealth's forfeiture laws in Philadelphia and found that roughly a third of people whose property is seized by law enforcement are never convicted of a crime. Because the Commonwealth's forfeiture laws allow law enforcement to keep 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeitures, Philadelphia has reaped a windfall from forfeitures, taking in $5 million in revenue annually. HB 508 and SB 869 would eliminate the profit motive by limiting how proceeds from forfeitures can be used.
A new survey of 500 Pennsylvania voters, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of Fix Forfeiture, found strong support for the main principle behind HB 508 and SB 869. Nearly 80 percent of Pennsylvania voters, including 75 percent of Republicans, say that the Commonwealth's forfeiture laws are in need of reform. Only 8 percent believe that the current forfeiture laws are working.
When presented with arguments in favor of Pennsylvania's current forfeiture laws and on the side of reform, the percentage of voters who believe that reform is needed actually increased by 9 points. Only 10 percent said agreed with the argument in favor of forfeiture without criminal charges, while 84 percent, including 80 percent of Republicans, believe that "law enforcement should only be able to permanently seize money or other property if that person is charged and convicted of a crime."
Responding to the results of the survey, state Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) said, "These polling numbers confirm Pennsylvanians recognize the need for reform. No agent of the government should be able to seize an individual’s property without the Constitutionally protected right of due process, and the legislation I’ve sponsored will ensure these rights are properly protected." Folmer is the primary sponsor of SB 869.
Jim Hobart of Public Opinion Strategies said the numbers are "some of the strongest support we’ve seen on any issue," adding that "[t]he tide is overwhelming in favor of civil asset forfeiture reforms." Likewise, Fix Forfeiture Executive Director Holly Harris explained, "The need for civil asset forfeiture reform is pressing and widely supported in the state. We urge the Legislature to move swiftly on passing this legislation."
HB 508 and SB 869 are awaiting action in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, though their are rumors of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the latter in the coming weeks. FreedomWorks supports both of these bills. Already, our activists in Pennsylvania have sent more than 2,200 messages to state lawmakers in support of these bills, and we will continue to mobilize them as they move forward.