OP-ED: Change civil forfeiture law over the top


Like many Pennsylvania seniors, Mary and Leon worked hard their entire lives — she as a retail saleswoman, he as a steel plant worker. The retired North Philadelphia couple, who had never had any run-ins with the law, lived modestly in a house they were finally able to pay off after years of hard work.

But at a time when they should be enjoying the fruits of their years of labor, they instead found themselves in a desperate battle against the strong arm of the government. Despite the fact that Mary and Leon had never even been accused of wrongdoing, much less convicted of anything, the Philadelphia district attorney had started proceedings to take the couple's home — their only asset.

Why? Because, without their knowledge or permission, their adult son had made one small sale of drugs from their front porch.

The District Attorney's Office was using a little-known process called civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government to take property it suspects has been used in criminal activity — even if the owner has never been convicted or even accused of a crime. Unlike a criminal proceeding, property owners have no right to an attorney, even when they can't afford one.

Originally designed as a tool to divest drug kingpins of their ill-gotten fortunes, civil asset forfeiture is increasingly used to take homes, cars and petty cash from ordinary Pennsylvanians — people like Mary and Leon.

That's why I have introduced Senate Bill 869, which will reform the current asset forfeiture system. I want to protect the rights of ordinary citizens. Respect for the Constitution is a key part of my "Promise to Pennsylvania," and it's why I carry copies of both the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions. I do not believe people should lose their property when they haven't been charged with or convicted of a crime.

Pennsylvania's current civil asset forfeiture system is rife with problems. Civil forfeitures require a low legal burden of proof. In some cases, property owners are either completely innocent or only tangentially culpable — yet they are deprived of due process while losing homes, cash and other valuables without ever being charged with a crime.

In one particularly horrifying example, Philadelphia police confiscated the piggy bank of a young daughter when they searched her home for alleged wrongdoing of a third person. The piggy bank contained the daughter's birthday money: $91. Neither the mother nor her child were ever charged with any criminal wrongdoing, but it still took over 12 months and many court appearances by a volunteer attorney from a local legal clinic before she was able to get her daughter's money returned.

According to Attorney General's reports, Philadelphia brings in approximately $5 million a year in income from asset forfeiture under the Controlled Substances Act, which is split between the Philadelphia police and the district attorney's office. None of the proceeds are spent on community-based drug and crime fighting programs.

According to a recent Washington Post story, about one third of the city residents whose property Philadelphia confiscates each year (approximately 1,500 people) have not been convicted of a crime. Much of Philadelphia's forfeiture money, the Post notes — about $2.2 million a year — goes directly to the DA's office, which oversees the forfeiture process.

Cash seizures account for 92 percent of Philadelphia forfeiture cases. Between 2002 and 2012, Philadelphia confiscated over $44 million in cash from city residents. Critics say Philadelphia focuses on petty cash: the median amount forfeited was $192; nearly 60 percent of cash forfeitures are less than $250; one-third are less than $100; and only 1 in 10 forfeitures are over $1,000.

Compare these totals to Los Angeles, where the average forfeiture was roughly $25,000. U.S. Justice Department guidelines indicate federal cash forfeitures must be more than $5,000 (unless the forfeiture relates to a criminal charge, making the minimum amount $1,000).

I don't believe current law protects people. It lacks the most basic notice and due process protections provided by other civil actions, and the fact that law enforcement has a financial stake in the process can lead to distorted decisions about when to pursue forfeiture. Cases should be based upon merit, not budgetary concerns, and people should not have to fight to win their own properties back if they haven't been convicted of a crime.

The same study cited in the Washington Post story indicated that 8 percent of Philadelphia forfeitures did not involve any criminal charges; 23 percent related to a criminal charge that was eventually dismissed; and 9 percent related to a minor conviction for possession or some other charge unrelated to the forfeiture. In all, 59 percent of cash forfeitures were supported by a criminal charge that would justify the forfeiture in the first place.

This is why I believe the time has come to consider changes to Pennsylvania's forfeiture laws. SB 869 would require property owners be convicted of a crime before forfeiting their money or property. The bill would also require all forfeited cash and the proceeds from the sale of forfeited property to be deposited in a county or state general fund.

The time for change has come, especially when many citizens are simply forced to give up because it is too expensive or difficult to battle against the government.

— State Sen, Mike Folmer is a Republican representing the 48th District, which includes parts of York County.