HARRISBURG – Legislation passed today by the Pennsylvania House fails to reform the practice of civil asset forfeiture in any significant way, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said in a statement after the vote. The civil liberties advocacy group said that the bill leaves in place many of the most egregious provisions of forfeiture law, including provisions that allow the government to take and keep property from people who have not been convicted of a crime.
“Civil asset forfeiture has been misused and abused by law enforcement in Pennsylvania,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The state Senate had a great opportunity to truly reform forfeiture. But it failed.”
The legislation, Senate Bill 8, also leaves in place the process of allocating revenue generated from forfeiture directly to the agencies that make decisions about what property to seize. Critics have referred to this incentive structure as “policing for profit.”
The ACLU of Pennsylvania also criticized the lack of a guarantee of counsel for people who are in forfeiture proceedings. Because forfeiture occurs through a civil proceeding, rather than as part of a criminal prosecution, property owners do not have a constitutional right to legal representation.
“A model reform bill would connect forfeiture to criminal proceedings, requiring a conviction of the person who owns the property and guaranteeing them a right to a lawyer,” said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “If this bill becomes law, people will still face the loss of their property without the assistance of an attorney.”
Civil asset forfeiture has become so controversial that every candidate for district attorney in Philadelphia who attended a community forum last week committed to only pursuing forfeiture after securing a criminal conviction.
In 2015, the ACLU of Pennsylvania analyzed forfeiture practices in three counties: Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Cumberland. In every county, significant numbers of people lost property without being convicted of a crime, and forfeiture was used disproportionately against African Americans.
Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said that the research findings were “troubling” and demonstrated the need for meaningful forfeiture reform, beyond the transparency measures passed by the Senate today.
“Pennsylvania has been in a national spotlight for the abusive forfeiture practices that have thrived under laws that remain on the books today,” Tack-Hooper said. “While there is nothing wrong with more transparency, we already know the problems with forfeiture. And the legislature needs to fix them.”
Senate Bill 8 now heads to the Governor for his signature.