Pennsylvania on the Cusp of Passing Forfeiture Reform

Current Pennsylvania law allows police to seize property without due process or conviction of a crime. Civil asset forfeiture legally incentivizes policing for profit by allowing the police to keep 100 percent of the proceeds from seizures. This practice creates a conflict of interest for the authorities who benefit monetarily from seizing property.

Unfortunately, for the citizens of Pennsylvania, once they have been suspected of criminal behavior police have the legal authority to act immediately and seize their property. If the accused decides to question the forfeiture, the burden of proof is on the property owner to prove their innocence in court.

Other than the extremely high court fees that make the process of getting your stuff back awfully expensive, it can also be quite a lengthy process. The problem with placing the burden of proof on the accused is that due process protects the innocent until proven guilty, yet in Pennsylvania, it is fundamentally reverse by making the accused guilty until they prove their innocence.

Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution states that “[a]ll men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent and indefeasible rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation, and of pursuing their own happiness.”

This is not the case for many victims of civil asset forfeiture.

Christos Sourvelis is a resident, homeowner and small-business owner in Philadelphia, where he has lived for over 30 years. His construction business was founded on skills his family passed down to him which he developed from Athens, Greece. Christos, his wife, Markella, and son, Yianni, have lived in their house since 2007.

Unknowingly, in March 2014, the Sourvelis’ lives would be changed forever.

Police arrested Yianni, their 22-year-old son, for selling $40 worth of drugs. This came as a complete shock to the Sourvelises, who had no idea that their son was involved in drug-related behavior. His arrest led to a civil asset forfeiture case. Nearly a month and a half later the police used Yianni’s arrest as cause to seize the Sourvelis’ home.

On average, Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies reportedly seize about $10.9 million annually. Considering guilt had not been established in court, this is an enormous amount of money seized. Even though the argument is made that this money goes to preventative programs to limit criminal behavior and provide higher public safety.

Philadelphia spent none of its forfeiture funds on proactive, community-based anti-drug and crime prevention programs, despite proponents’ claims that forfeiture funds are essential to supporting such efforts. Philadelphia alone seized more than $69 million between 2002 and 2013. That total comprises more than 1,200 houses, 3,400 vehicles, $47 million in cash, and various other items, such as electronics and jewelry.

Thankfully for residents of Pennsylvania, state Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 869 which will make it more difficult for police to seize property. This bill shifts the burden of proof from the property owner to the government. This is an important aspect of the bill because it requires the government to prove that the property owner is guilty by the highest standard of clear and convincing evidence.

On September 28, the bill passed the senate with a vote of 43 to 7. The bill now moves to the state House awaiting a final vote.

Back in 2014, while in session, Sen. Folmer reiterated to all Senate members the importance of due process and protecting the innocent, as well as low-income families who are impacted at a much higher cost. Families like the Sourvelises are victims of legalized theft by their own government and it must be stopped.

“Forfeiture of assets such as cash, automobiles, and property currently occur as civil proceedings against the property are in question. This allows assets to be seized from property owners regardless of whether they have been convicted of a crime for which forfeiture is a prescribed legal remedy, with a very low burden of proof. In many publicized cases, the property owners themselves are either completely innocent or only tangentially culpable in the drug-related offense.

The resulting system allows property owners to be deprived of their due process, losing homes and other valuables without ever being charged for a crime. According to University of Pennsylvania School of Law professor Louis Rulli, a nationally-recognized expert in civil forfeiture, these actions disproportionately affect low-income minorities.

Because there is no right to counsel in civil action like there is in a criminal matter, indigent claimants must spend a lot of money to hire a lawyer, who must then prove the owner had no knowledge or could not be reasonably expected to have knowledge of the illegal activity in the home. It’s nearly impossible for a homeowner to assert his or her rights to the property because there are very specific affirmative defenses that must be raised to counter government assertions.”

This bill will also require that the proceeds from seizures will be directed toward the state’s general fund. This is especially important because it decreases incentives for police to seize property for profit as well as reducing the conflict of interest for police.
Civil asset forfeiture reform is crucial in states like Pennsylvania where citizens are being bullied by their local governments. Protecting the property of the individual is the central idea of preserving individual liberty!