York County DA: Numbers of forfeited vehicles, other items plunge from previous norms
The amount of property seized in drug cases and forfeited to York County has dropped significantly in the two years since District Attorney Dave Sunday spoke to this newspaper about reforming the process.
"This is a realignment of priorities based on the state of the law, based on an understanding of community expectations and the reprioritizing time and resources," Sunday told The York Dispatch. "Best practices evolve from data and studies and experience."
In fiscal year 2018-19, the York County Drug Task Force and police in the county seized a total of seven vehicles and 10 miscellaneous items that were forfeited to the DA's office under state civil-asset forfeiture law, according to that year's county asset forfeiture report.
In comparison, there were 107 vehicles and 176 miscellaneous items seized in the 2016-17 fiscal year, according to that year's forfeiture report. Those numbers began to drop the following year.
There were 93 vehicles and 153 miscellaneous items seized in fiscal year 2017-18, according to that year's report. Sunday took office in January 2018, which was halfway through that fiscal year.
"It's encouraging that the forfeiture machine is slowing down in York County. Based on his past commitment to reform, the DA deserves credit for that," said Andy Hoover, director of communications for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Ultimately, no one should have their property forfeited by the government unless they've been convicted of a crime, the property had some direct connection to their offense, and (only when) the person's due process rights were respected. District attorneys abuse their power when they take cash, cars and other property from someone without meeting the burden of proving their criminal case."
By law, a judge must approve all forfeitures, and Sunday said police followed the law in seizing property in past years. Forfeited property is auctioned off in York County, and proceeds go to the county's drug forfeiture fund.
Perfectly legal: It is legal for police to seize cash, cars, weapons and other property in drug arrests, and defendants in Pennsylvania don't have to be found guilty at trial to have their property forfeited by a judge. The property owners don't even have to be the listed defendants. For instance, vehicles can be forfeited even if the owners unwittingly loaned them to loved ones accused of committing drug crimes with those vehicles.
And those whose property is the subject of forfeiture petitions have no right to counsel, meaning they often can't afford attorneys to represent them in court, according to state public-interest law expert Louis Rulli. He is a professor of law at University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.
Sunday said he's pleased with the decreases in the numbers of vehicles and miscellaneous items seized in the past fiscal year.
"Clearly there are vehicles that are not being seized now that in the past would have been seized. That does not mean the vehicles seized in the past were seized not in accordance with the law," he said. "But there are situations where the innocent-owner defense comes into play. Instead of litigating that, we make that decision up front to save money for the taxpayers, time for law enforcement and, more importantly, to protect the due-process rights of an innocent owner."
Prioritizing: Sunday also noted that the York County Drug Task Force and municipal police could legally continue seizing all types of miscellaneous items, as long as prosecutors could connect those items to being purchased with drug money.
"We could stretch the definition of something that is tied to the controlled-substance act and we could take it in front of a judge and make those arguments," he said. "But that being said, we have made it a priority to only seize items that are directly linked to the sale of drugs, and in particular the violations of the controlled-substance act."
Miscellaneous items forfeited and auctioned off in past years included electronics such as televisions and video games, jewelry, Harley-Davidson leather jackets, a dirt bike, a John Deere riding mower, power tools, a snowblower and a drone. Those types of items are now rarely being seized, the report reveals.
The DA said he wants his office "to get it right before it comes before a judge … before someone's property is seized by the government."
Sunday said it's more important for police to spend time investigating drug trafficking than filling out forfeiture paperwork, and that the job of prosecutors isn't restricted to merely prosecuting people charged with crimes.
"Our job is also to protect people's rights, and that includes their due-process rights," Sunday said, adding he thinks police and most people would agree it's not good policy to use civil-asset forfeiture as a money-making venture.
Another of Sunday's forfeiture reforms forbids prosecutors from using defendants' property as leverage to get them to enter into plea agreements, he has said.
Seizing guns: But his office hasn't eased up on seizing certain items, specifically cash and weapons.
"There are forfeitures that are extremely appropriate and necessary, and when those cases come across our desk we will absolutely (seek to) forfeit the assets of drug traffickers," Sunday said.
Seizing weapons remains "an absolute priority" for York County law enforcement, according to the DA.
"Our officers in the Drug Task Force are constantly identifying and removing illegal guns off the street," he said. "I can't emphasize how important that is. … Every gun removed from the street was potentially a homicide down the road (that was prevented)."
Records show that 48 weapons were forfeited to the county in fiscal year 2017-18, and that the same number were forfeited in 2018-19. A total of 74 weapons were seized in the 2016-17 fiscal year, that report states.
Accused drug dealers forfeited about $706,275 in cash in fiscal year 2018-19, up from about $486,300 in the previous fiscal year. About $861,700 in cash was seized in the 2016-17 fiscal year.
Funding programs: About $23,600 of forfeiture proceeds in 2018-19 went to community-based drug and crime-fighting programs, up from about $3,100 the year before, according to reports.
"I am pleased it’s gone up, but I think we can do a lot better," Sunday said. By law, drug forfeiture proceeds can be spent on two things — furthering drug-trafficking investigations and funding community-based drug and crime-fighting programs.
That could include funding for schools to provide drug education programs for students, he said. The amount of funding going to York County's wellness courts has also increased and will continue to increase, according to the DA.
"We are right now working on identifying (community) programs that fit that bill, that we can start to put money into," Sunday said, and predicted the amount of forfeited money earmarked for such programs will keep increasing. "Let’s check back in a year."
The county's drug-forfeiture fund had an ending balance of about $856,500 in 2018-19, according to that year's report.
A good amount of forfeiture money has already been spent creating the York County Law Enforcement Resource Center, which houses the county's forensic lab, cyber lab, Quick Response Team, forensic unit, Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force and the county's intelligence unit and cyber team, and also has training rooms, conference space and storage space.
Costs to run the resource center will now drop significantly, the DA said.
Others weigh in: Local defense attorney Korey Leslie told The York Dispatch two years ago that York County's forfeiture process had become fairer under Sunday's tenure.
Reached this week, he said that trend continues.
"What I have seen more than anything else is the forfeiting of money, but not really getting into the weeds of trying to forfeit personal property," Leslie said. "I think they continue to do a better job with being more fair across the board."
Rulli, the UPenn law professor and expert in public-interest law, said he applauds the fact that the numbers of vehicles and miscellaneous property forfeited in York County dropped dramatically in the past fiscal year.
But he remains concerned about the large amounts of cash forfeited, which he said has become a priority across the country.
"That's why civil forfeiture has been so widely criticized and why it's been abused — because it's such a lucrative source of revenue," Rulli said.
State reforms: He called civil-asset forfeiture a powerful weapon that's prone to abuse and "is sort of a quasi-punishment for criminal activity."
Since 2014, at least 34 states have amended their civil-asset forfeiture laws, and 15 of them now require a criminal conviction for forfeitures to take place, the professor said.
Three states have eliminated civil-asset forfeiture entirely, according to Rulli — Nebraska, New Mexico and North Carolina.
Pennsylvania is one of the 34 states that revised its laws by elevating the standard of proof, shifting that burden of proof to the government from the property owners, and by adding language dealing with excessive fines, he said.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.