Carol Johnson* of North Philadelphia, 87 years old, carefully saved $2,000 from her pension checks, storing the money in an upstairs bedroom. But in a matter of minutes, it was gone—taken by law enforcement after Carol’s husband Kevin* was found with two marijuana joints in their home.
Carol was never charged with a crime, but it didn’t matter. Under Pennsylvania’s civil asset forfeiture laws, cash, cars, and even homes can be forfeited without a hearing on the evidence, without due process, without justice.
Every year, Pennsylvanians are stripped of about $14 million in property and cash simply on allegations that the property was involved in a crime. Last year, eight counties forfeited more than $500,000 of property each: Philadelphia, Montgomery, Lancaster, Lebanon, Allegheny, York, Berks, and Delaware. Seventeen counties forfeited more than $1 per county resident.
Allegheny County regularly ranks third among reporting counties for income generated from forfeiture, with more than $730,000 forfeited last year, according to an Attorney General’s report.
Civil asset forfeiture turns justice on its head, forcing property owners to prove their innocence instead of requiring the government to prove their guilt. It’s a system in desperate need of reform.
Modern civil asset forfeiture originated as a tool in the “war on drugs,” allowing law enforcement personnel to take and keep drug money to discourage dealing. But it is now used aggressively across Pennsylvania to take property prior to a conviction and sometimes even without a criminal charge. And all forfeiture revenues go directly to the very law enforcement agencies that make decisions about what to seize and when to pursue forfeiture.
The numbers are staggering. The best data about how forfeiture works in Pennsylvania comes from Philadelphia. From 2011 to 2013, Philadelphia filed approximately 6,000 forfeiture cases per year, leading to the forfeiture of about 100 homes, 150 cars, and nearly $4 million in cash. Nearly one-third of these cases were people like Carol who were never convicted of a related crime.
And being innocent isn’t enough to prevent forfeiture. Even after Kevin was acquitted of all charges, the city moved ahead with the forfeiture of Carol’s pension money. Hiring an attorney to recover the money would have cost more than the amount taken, so the Johnsons gave up.
Unfortunately, this scenario reflects the norm.
In Philadelphia, more than 90 percent of forfeiture revenues come from cash. More than half of these cash forfeitures involved less than $200. Because individuals in civil forfeiture cases have no right to an attorney—as they would in criminal cases—taking a case to court to recover seized property means spending money out-of-pocket to hire an attorney.
Most petty cash forfeiture victims choose to avoid a court fight—and expensive legal fees—to reclaim the money taken from them. Families with limited means, who cannot afford a lawyer, end up being hurt the most.
Particularly disturbing, too, is that civil asset forfeiture often disproportionately targets people of color. In Montgomery County, African-Americans represent 9 percent of the population, and 37 percent of people arrested for drug crimes, but they are an estimated 53 percent of property owners facing forfeiture.
This is unacceptable.
Property rights have long been recognized as essential to liberty. Both our national and state constitutions prohibit the taking of property without due process of law. And our justice system is supposed to presume innocence until guilt is proven.
Pennsylvanians should not be stripped of their property without first being convicted of a crime. Likewise, law enforcement agencies should not have a financial incentive to pursue forfeiture targeting innocent citizens.
A poll released this month shows 79 percent of Pennsylvania voters agree and support civil asset forfeiture reform.
Senate Bill 869, introduced by Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) and Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) and House Bill 508, sponsored by Rep. Jim Cox (R-Berks County), would require a conviction before an individual’s property can be forfeited. These bills would also direct forfeiture revenue to a general fund of the state, county, or municipality that seized the property, instead of directly to law enforcement.
It’s time to protect the rights of the innocent and restore the community trust in law enforcement that has been eroded by the aggressive use of civil asset forfeiture.
*Names changed to protect their privacy.
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Reggie Shuford is Executive Director for ACLU of Pennsylvania and Matthew J. Brouillette is President and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation.