PHILADELPHIA - The ACLU of Pennsylvania today released a report, entitled Forfeiture in the Shadows, that documents the impact of the abusive use of civil asset forfeiture by the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office.
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal mechanism that allows law enforcement to take and keep property it claims is connected to illegal activity without charging the property owner with a crime. Prosecutors and police who make decisions about when to pursue civil forfeiture are then allowed to keep 100% of the forfeiture profits for their own budgets, meaning they have a direct financial incentive to forfeit as much property as possible. Unlike criminal defendants, people facing the loss of their property through civil forfeiture have no right to an attorney.
The report examines data obtained through Right-to-Know requests relating to forfeiture cases from 2011 to 2013. It found that the proceedings are heavily weighted in the district attorney’s favor. Among its findings:
- In the fiscal years 2012-13 and 2013-14, the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office collected, on average, over $400,000 in annual forfeiture revenue, which was the equivalent of roughly 10% of its budget.
- Cumberland County law enforcement has kept large amounts of forfeited equipment–even three gaming systems and four video games–for its own internal use, on the grounds that the property purportedly aids drug enforcement efforts.
- African-Americans in Cumberland County are eighteen times more likely to be targets of forfeiture than people of other races.
- Twenty-two percent of forfeitures are brought against people who have not been found guilty of a related crime.
- In approximately 70 percent of cases, prosecutors get property owners to sign “settlement” agreements, usually without any judicial oversight or attorney representation.
- Only 4.7 percent of the money seized for forfeiture was ever returned to property owners.
- Property owners lost every cash-only case involving less than $365.
“The idea that law enforcement officers might be abusing this powerful tool is appalling,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It’s unclear what law enforcement purpose could possibly be served by seizing and keeping gaming consoles and video games.”
This report is the third in a series analyzing civil asset forfeiture practices in various counties in Pennsylvania. A June 2015 ACLU-PA report,Guilty Property: How Law Enforcement Takes $1 Million in Cash from Innocent Philadelphians Every Year — and Gets Away with It, found that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office forfeits over $1 million in cash each year from more than 1,500 people who were not convicted of any related crime. An October 2015 report,Broken Justice, found that in Montgomery County, 53 percent of people facing civil asset forfeiture were African-American, although African-Americans make up only nine percent of the county's population.
“These reports show that Pennsylvania’s civil forfeiture laws are fundamentally broken and lead to abuse and injustice,” said Shuford. “These problems can only be fixed with statewide legislation.”
In June, legislation was introduced in both the state Senate and House that would reform the commonwealth’s forfeiture laws. Senate Bill 869 and House Bill 508 would require that individuals be convicted of a crime before their property is forfeited, and would remove the direct financial incentive for law enforcement to pursue forfeiture.
A broad array of organizations on the right and the left support reforming civil asset forfeiture to protect Pennsylvanians’ due process rights, including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Keystone Progress, and the Pennsylvania Prison Society, among others. A national right-left coalition, Fix Forfeiture, also supports the proposed legislation to reform the commonwealth’s forfeiture laws.
A copy of the report, along with other information about civil asset forfeiture, is available at: www.aclupa.org/forfeiture.