York judge: Drug task force was 'overzealous' in seizing property

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Auctioneer David Adcock of Hellam calls for bids at the York County Drug Task Force's annual fall auction on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, at Schaad Detective Agency. More than 50 vehicles were up for bid.

The York County Drug Task Force was, in the recent past, overzealous about seizing property of some alleged drug dealers — a practice that violated the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions, according to a York County judge.

Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock filed his 17-page opinion Wednesday, March 20. It directs the York County District Attorney's Office to return two vehicles and two big-screen televisions to a Springettsbury Township couple, the male half of which was convicted of selling heroin. He did not order the couple's other property returned — $924 cash, a .380 handgun and a safe.

"This case is being decided on the facts of this case alone," Trebilcock wrote. "It is important to note, however, that overzealous forfeiture actions by the Drug Task Force in the time frame of this case has not been isolated in nature."

According to the judge, "a disconcerting pattern is evident" that some property was being seized by the drug task force "regardless of any link to drug money or illegal activity."

Trebilcock's ruling comes just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Constitution's Eighth and 14th amendments protect citizens from "excessive fines" levied by states, which includes property seized from drug dealers and later ordered forfeited by judges. That has always been true federally, but the justices have now agreed it applies to states as well.

The task force in 2016 and around that time "disproportionately" seized big-screen TVs, video games and game systems, Trebilcock wrote.

Nexus 'essential': "They focus upon items that have high resale value," he wrote. "That is not a problem in itself, until the police begin to ignore that there must be a nexus to drug dealing or drug money to seize those ... high-value assets.

York County Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock

"This nexus is essential," Trebilcock continued, "because property itself cannot be considered derivative contraband merely because it is owned by or occasionally used by a criminal drug offender for legitimate purposes."

District Attorney Dave Sunday said one of the first projects he tackled after taking office in January 2018 was to review and revise the DA's office's policies and procedures regarding the seizure and forfeiture of property from alleged drug dealers.

More:DA: Pa. revised forfeiture law before ruling, and York County has made more changes

Last month, he spoke with The York Dispatch about those changes, which included scaling back what items are seized and when those seizures should happen.

Sunday spoke in more detail Thursday, March 21, about those changes and also provided forfeiture data to The York Dispatch. (See related article)

More:DA shares data on civil forfeitures, discusses reforms

Checks, balances: "There were gaping holes in the forfeiture story of York County that were missing in (Trebilcock's) opinion," the DA said. "With that being said, that's how it should be — a system where there are checks and balances (to ensure) due process."

Sunday noted that after police seize property, his office now reviews those seizures to determine what items should be forfeited and what should be returned. That's done by senior deputy prosecutor John Hamme.

"In the history of York County, there has never been an item forfeited that wasn't approved by a judge," Sunday noted.

Defense attorney Korey Leslie, who represented Christopher Hawkins in the 2016 forfeiture action, said he's glad the judge listened to hearing testimony and properly applied the law, despite the fact that Hawkins is a convicted drug dealer.

Leslie said it was time a judge addressed what he called the drug task force's former "carte blanche policy" of allegedly focusing on seizing high-value items.

Leslie said the seizure and forfeiture process has become fairer since Sunday took office and since Hamme began overseeing the process.

Tom Kearney, who was district attorney during the time period referenced by Trebilcock, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

'Shopping spree': Trebilcock noted in his order that Hawkins was "a bad actor" and a criminal, but he wrote that the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions don't create two tiers of protections for citizens.

"Objects do not acquire a 'guilt by association' simply because they are owned by someone engaged in criminal activity," the judge wrote. "In this case, the Drug Task Force personnel ignored the need for such a nexus and engaged in a shopping spree, for the benefit of their budget, based solely on the property's value."

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday

He added that "officers simply saw items ... that had a market resale value in a drug dealer's home, and seized those items without a valid basis in law."

Sunday noted that members of the drug task force at the time, and now, do their best to follow the changing laws and constraints they are given.

Trebilcock described the seizure of two cars and two TVs in this case as "manifestly unreasonable" because there was no evidence presented to suggest Hawkins either used those items to further his drug dealing or bought the items with drug proceeds.

"The seizure of personal property, without lawful authority, becomes a potential tool of coercion against suspects that was not in the legislature's intent in passing the forfeiture statute," Trebilcock wrote.

Financial coercion? "When not restrained by the Courts, this can become a form of collateral financial coercion, which this Court will not tolerate."

The judge noted that Pennsylvania's civil-forfeiture statute accomplishes a legitimate government purpose.

Korey Leslie

"However, a lawful statute can be applied in a manner that is unlawful in execution," he wrote. "This Court equally finds that the forfeiture statute, as applied in this case by the Drug Task Force, was constitutionally impermissible."

Trebilcock wrote, "the actions of the police in this case constituted the illegal seizure of private property from citizens in an arbitrary manner without due process."

He said it violated both the Fourth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the portion of the Pennsylvania Constitution that protects citizens from unreasonable seizure of their possessions.

"When the taking of property from a criminal suspect has neither evidentiary relevance to the case, nor nexus to a drug transaction or drug money, the police are not only in violation of the statute, but acting outside of the law," Trebilcock wrote.

He noted that sometimes the seized property belongs to family members or friends of the defendant, and that in those cases "overzealous" property seizures by drug task forces are "inflicting punishment upon the lawful and bona fide owners of the property as well, who may be facing no charges."

York County District Attorney's Office's 2016-17 civil-asset forfeiture report for drug arrest-related property seizures.

Others' property: Trebilcock noted that when property is improperly seized and held for an unreasonable period of time, there is added pressure on a defendant to make a plea deal "in order to retrieve his or his families' legitimate property, of which they have been possibly wrongly deprived."

If that's the case, the defendant's decision to enter into a plea agreement "might no longer be viewed by the Court as freely and voluntarily entered into, where it is built upon a foundation of financial coercion," the judge wrote.

Trebilcock noted that he is not saying the drug task force has engaged in such "coercive practices" related to guilty pleas.

"However, in the absence of reform and a greater demonstration of responsibility in future Drug Task Force practices, this issue will remain to be decided," he predicted.

The fact that civil-asset forfeitures are not considered part of defendants' criminal cases means they don't have a right to be represented by attorneys, Trebilcock noted, adding that incarcerated defendants don't have "ready access" to legal counsel.

"The systemic protections are meager," he wrote. "This creates a system where excesses in the exercise of police authority are not easily remedied."

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.