FAQ about Asset Forfeiture and Senate Bill 869 and House Bill 508

SB 869 and HB 508 are comprehensive reform bills aimed at fixing Pennsylvania’s broken asset forfeiture laws by strengthening protections for people whose property is subject to forfeiture. 

How does asset forfeiture work?

Under Pennsylvania’s current asset forfeiture laws, the government can take and keep property that it alleges was used in a crime without ever charging the owner with—much less convicting the person of—a crime.  This happens through a civil proceeding that is technically a lawsuit against the property itself.  Because the owner isn’t even a party to the lawsuit, they don’t have the basic constitutional protections afforded to criminal defendants.

Under SB 869 and HB 508, the government would wait until you are convicted of a crime in order to forfeit property that was either used in the commission of that crime or is the proceeds of that crime.  And the forfeiture proceeding would be part of the criminal process, ensuring that property owners have adequate procedural protections.

What kinds of crimes are punishable by forfeiture?

Currently, the vast majority of forfeitures in Pennsylvania occur under the Controlled Substances Act against property that law enforcement believes was either used in the commission of a drug crime (such as a car used to transport drugs, or a house used to store drugs) or the proceeds of crime (such as money from drug sales or property bought with drug money). But there are actually dozens of different laws that authorize forfeiture—including laws related to gambling, counterfeiting, and even waste disposal. 

Senate Bill 869 and House Bill 508 create a uniform set of procedures to govern property forfeitures in Pennsylvania.

Where does the money from asset forfeiture go?

Under current law, police and prosecutors get to keep 100% of the profits from forfeiture.  Forfeiture generates $25 million per year for law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania, in addition to the budget that the legislature allocates to these departments.  This means that the law enforcement agents who make decisions about when to pursue forfeiture have a direct financial incentive to forfeit as much property as possible.

SB 869 and HB 508 would eliminate this profit motive by requiring that all proceeds from forfeiture go into a general government fund that the legislature can allocate as it sees fit—either a general fund of the county that seized the property (if county law enforcement was involved) or a general state fund (if the property was seized by state law enforcement).

Would SB 869 and HB 508 prevent police from seizing evidence or property from a crime scene?

Not at all.  The bills do not affect law enforcement’s ability to take (or “seize”) evidence of a crime at all.  And they don’t affect the timing of when police can seize property that they believe is forfeitable.  They only affect when the governmentbecomes the ownerof that property.  Under current law, the government can forfeit and keep property even if the owner hasn’t been convicted of a crime.  Under SB 869 and HB 508, property isn’t forfeitable until after the owner has been convicted of a crime.  But the bills still allow the government to hold onto most property while the criminal proceedings go forward.

Under SB 869 and HB 508, can criminals evade forfeiture by putting their property in other people’s names? 

No.  Under both current law and SB 869 and HB 508, courts can look beyond the name written on the property title and decide whether someone is an actual owner or merely a “nominal” or “straw” owner.  Also, SB 869 and HB 508 ensure that any property bought with the proceeds of crime is forfeitable (unless the property was later purchased by an innocent third party who didn’t know the property was criminal proceeds).

 

Last updated 7/2/2015

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