In the last decade, Pennsylvania law enforcement has taken over $100 million in private property using something called “civil asset forfeiture.” Originally targeted at drug kingpins and the money they made from their crimes, civil asset forfeiture is increasingly used to take homes, cars, and small amounts of cash from ordinary Pennsylvanians.
Under Pennsylvania’s civil asset forfeiture laws, the government can legally take property it claims is connected to illegal activity but without actually charging, much less convicting, the property owner of 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.
Current Pennsylvania law provides very few protections for people whose property the government is trying to forfeit. Under civil asset forfeiture, property owners do not have the constitutional protections they would receive if they had been accused of a crime, including the right to appointed counsel. Many property owners are never even notified that their property is the subject of a civil forfeiture proceeding. And some innocent owners decide not to contest forfeitures because the costs of taking time off work and paying a lawyer to challenge the forfeiture often far exceed the value of the property at stake. As a result of this unfair process, most civil forfeitures in Pennsylvania end without the property owner even appearing before a judge, allowing prosecutors to take the property without ever presenting evidence. Civil asset forfeiture also disproportionately affects low-income people of color.
Legislation has been introduced to reform Pennsylvania forfeiture law to embody two core principles: 1) that no property should be forfeited unless the property owner is first convicted of a crime and 2) that law enforcement should not profit from enforcing forfeiture laws.
SB 869 and HB 508 also strengthen the ability of innocent people with an interest in the property to challenge the forfeiture and close the loophole that permits local law enforcement to circumvent state protections by referring forfeitures to the federal government. Contact your state representative and state senator and ask them to support asset forfeiture reform!
Organizations interested in working to reform civil asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania should contact the ACLU-PA about joining the Coalition for Forfeiture Reform. The Coalition is a partnership advocating for stronger legal protections to prevent the government from abusing the power to take and keep people’s property.