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Folmer continues push for civil forfeiture reform

David Weissman
505-5431/@DispatchDavid
  • Sen. Folmer's civil forfeiture reform bill would require higher burden of proof to take property.
  • Trump joked earlier in week he would ruin a Texas state senator's career over civil forfeiture reform.
  • Sen. Leach, cosponsor of Folmer's bill, calls Trump "fascist, loofa-faced, s--- gibbon!"

Mike Folmer isn't worried about President Donald Trump destroying his career.

The Republican state senator who represents part of York County has reintroduced a bill intended to protect citizens' rights by amending state civil asset forfeiture laws.

It's similar to a bill introduced by a Texas state lawmaker who now may or may not be in the president's cross hairs.

Folmer said whether Trump likes or dislikes his bill makes no difference to him because Trump is not a dictator.

He added that he's not anti-law enforcement, but he believes reforming civil forfeiture laws is a matter of constitutional rights.

"I believe in innocent until proven guilty," Folmer said. "And we should be cautious about turning police into revenue-generating assets. They're there to keep us safe."

State Sen. Mike Folmer reads Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution while speaking with the York Dispatch Editorial Board at the office in West Manchester Township, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

At issue: Current laws allow law enforcement to take possession of property — including money, cars and homes — of people suspected of crimes, and it is most commonly used during drug arrests.

Folmer, who also represents part of Lebanon County, said civil forfeiture was originally created as a tool to go after drug cartels, but it has gotten "out of control," with several reports of law enforcement taking assets from people never convicted of any offenses.

Folmer first introduced the bipartisan legislation last session to require that a property owner be convicted of a crime before a district attorney may seize their money or property.

The bill underwent several amendments before passing the Senate, but it never reached a vote in the House.

This session, Folmer has worked with the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and Fix Forfeiture, a national organization focusing on civil forfeiture reform, to propose Senate Bill 8.

The bill proposes to impose higher burdens of proof on the state when taking property, prohibit the pre-forfeiture seizure of real property without a hearing and improve transparency in the auditing and reporting process at the county and state levels, among other reforms.

OP-ED: Change civil forfeiture law over the top

The new bill removed language that would have required counties to appoint a public defender in civil forfeiture cases because the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania argued it was an unfunded mandate, Folmer said.

The bill has passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, 12-2, and currently sits in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Trump's joke: The topic made some national headlines this week after President Donald Trump joked about ruining a Texas state senator's career for proposing civil forfeiture reform.

Trump met with county sheriffs at the White House on Tuesday, and a Texas sheriff complained about a state senator who wanted to make it harder for law enforcement to get control of assets forfeited by drug traffickers, according to the Dallas Morning News.

"Do you want to give his name? We'll destroy his career," Trump said, and was met with laughter.

A White House spokeswoman has said Trump was joking, according to the Huffington Post.

The 'gibbon' retort: One of the co-sponsors of Folmer's bill, Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery and Delaware counties, used reports of the joke to criticize the president.

"Hey @realDonaldTrump I oppose civil asset forfeiture too! Why don't you try to destroy my career you fascist, loofa-faced, s----gibbon!" Leach wrote in a tweet.

A quick look through Leach's Twitter and Facebook pages shows that he's been quick to criticize Trump before and since the election, but that tweet has garnered the most attention by far, according to Zach Hoover, his chief of staff.

State Sen. Daylin Leach speaks to the audience at the "Innovation in the Cannabis Industry" conference on Saturday, April 30 in Philadelphia. (Photo by David Weissman)

Hoover said the phones at Leach's offices have been ringing off the hook, mostly in support of his comments, and Leach jumped from about 7,000 Twitter followers to more than 32,000 overnight.

Hoover said Leach decided to make those comments because he was taken aback that a president would, even jokingly, threaten to ruin a state senator's career over taking a position on an issue.

Folmer said he and Leach have a "strange relationship" — the duo also teamed up to pass medical marijuana legislation — but he likes Leach despite the fact they disagree on many issues.

Garnering support: Rich Long, executive director of Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said his association supports the bill in its current form.

They had issues with the original wording of the bill because it would have made funds acquired under civil forfeiture available for use outside of law enforcement.

"We recognize how critical (those funds are) to provide law enforcement with what they need to effectively combat crimes," Long said, adding that they also recognized the laws allowed room for improvement.

Leach, though he is a cosponsor, believes there also is room for improvement in Folmer's bill, according to Hoover.

Leach was one of two senators to vote against the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Hoover said Leach wants more language to ensure convictions are required before property is taken. He said he also believes the funds acquired from civil forfeiture should go to other causes because, otherwise, it creates a motivation for law enforcement to take more property.

Leach also voted against Folmer's civil forfeiture bill in committee last year, but he voted in favor of it on the Senate floor because he decided it was still better than nothing, Hoover said.

Folmer said he understands some legislators believe the bill doesn't go far enough to protect citizen's rights, while others believe it goes too far in hindering law enforcement, but he believes he's found a middle ground that will garner enough support to pass it into law.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.