New report reveals shocking abuse of Pennsylvania’s civil asset forfeiture laws against innocent property owners

Pennsylvania’s long-awaited, all-encompassing civil asset forfeiture reform bill was introduced in the Senate in bipartisan fashion. Just before the bill was introduced, the Commonwealth’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union released a shocking study detailing the abuse of civil asset forfeiture by overzealous law enforcement and prosecutors in Philadelphia.

The report not only sheds light on how the egregious tool is used against innocent property owners, but also the complexity of forfeiture proceedings. This complexity deters people, not even charged with a crime, from fighting to get wrongfully seized items back.

In the report, Guilty Property: How Law Enforcement Takes $1 Million in Cash from Innocent Philadelphians Every Year — and Gets Away with It, the ACLU of Pennsylvania found that some 6,000 forfeiture cases are filed each year in the City of Brotherly Love. "This enforcement activity," the report explains, "results in the forfeiture of some 100 homes, 150 vehicles, and roughly $4 million in cash each year, for a total of around $5 million in annual income."

The legal requirement to challenge a forfeiture proceeding is set up to overwhelmingly benefit the local government. Under Pennsylvania law, seized property is considered guilty until proven innocent by the owner, who does not even need to be charged with a crime. In addition, prosecutors and law enforcement are allowed to keep proceeds from forfeitures, creating a perverse profit motive.

The reports notes that the Philadelphia district attorney office fails to give proper notice of forfeiture proceedings, such as publishing an ad in the local paper, a third of the time. What’s more, property owners must appear in court several times to contest forfeitures, and any failure to appear results in forfeiture.

Even when innocent property owners do everything that is required of them, there is no guarantee that they will get back cash seized from the local government. The ACLU of Pennsylvania notes that though most people whose cash is seized are charged with a crime, 32 percent are never convicted.

"Unfortunately for property owners who are never found guilty of a crime, legal innocence has only a small effect on the outcome of cases — raising the odds of avoiding forfeiture from an estimated 1.8% to 9.6%," the report explains. "Taken together these statistics mean that law enforcement forfeits at least $1 million in cash from some 1,500 innocent Philadelphians every year."

Most cash forfeiture cases involve sums of $400 or less, but Philadelphia also goes after larger sums. The report details one particularly outrageous example of a raid on a North Philadelphia apartment building. Law enforcement targeted a drug dealer living on the second floor, seizing his money. The problem arose when they also seized the cash of innocent people who just happened to live in the building.

"They took the $2,000 in rent money Hank Mosley had in his third floor apartment. And they took $1,500 of Tanya Andrews’ hard-earned wages out of her apartment. They took it all," the report notes, using pseudonyms to conceal the identities of the victims. "Tanya and Hank didn’t understand why: They weren’t arrested. They weren’t charged. Yet police had confiscated their money like they had done something wrong."

After more than a year of fighting the forfeiture, Tanya eventually got her money back from the city. Hank, however, moved to another state, missing one of the necessary court dates. His cash was automatically forfeited the local government.

"Supporters of the current civil asset forfeiture process say it’s a necessary tool for stopping drug kingpins," said Reggie Shuford, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in a press release. "But forfeiture has been used against ordinary citizens, many of whom are poor and without the resources to fight back against the strong arm of the government."

SB 869 would fundamentally reform Pennsylvania’s civil asset forfeiture laws by requiring a criminal conviction before the government can begin forfeiture proceedings against property connected to a crime, restoring the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process. The bill also removes the profit motive often behind seizures and closes the gaping loophole that allows law enforcement to pursue forfeiture under federal law.

Innocent Pennsylvanians deserve nothing less than full protection of their property, and their civil liberties. SB 869 would restore these rights and assure than this pernicious practice can no longer be abused.