OP-ED: Numbers tell a story on asset forfeiture law
There have been some interesting arguments against my Senate Bill 869 and its goal of protecting people from losing their properties when they haven't been charged or convicted of a crime. SB 869 would do this by carefully regulating the practice of asset forfeiture law.
Some opponents have called SB 869 "the Pennsylvania Drug Dealer Bill of Rights" and an "appalling piece of legislation" that has the goal of forcing law enforcement "to close up shop ... the result would be that the drug effort would fall back upon municipal police departments."
Nothing could be further from the truth. The goal of SB 869 is to protect 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendment rights: protection from unreasonable searches and seizures without warrants, compensation for the taking of private property, and the right to be informed of accusations and to confront witnesses.
However, I am also mindful of the ongoing need to provide law enforcement with proper resources to battle crime. For this reason, I asked several district attorneys some questions to better understand some of their concerns and to know there is proper openness, transparency and accountability in the use of these moneys. These are my questions:
•The number of civil asset seizures the DA's office has made the past year;
•The number of convictions that have followed these seizures;
•The total dollar value of assets seized and/or forfeited, and;
•The uses of these assets and the dollar value of each use.
While waiting for replies to my inquiries, I got some answers from a recent Asset Forfeiture Report of the Attorney General. Under the Controlled Substances Forfeitures Act statewide, $25,919,270.12 was available in Fiscal Year 2012-13 from cash proceeds, with $14,355,262.04 being the year's ending balance.
These are the numbers for the three counties I represent:
Dauphin: $115,853.93 starting balance, $607,174.01 total available, and $134,623.91 ending balance;
Lebanon: $140,093.74 starting balance, $911,725.69 total available, and $486,697.70 ending balance, and;
York: $841,338.89 starting balance, $1,453,770.08 total available, and $790,567.12 ending balance.
Particularly interesting to me were some of the uses of unsold forfeited property, including: three LCD/LED televisions, one Sony stereo system, two Sony PlayStation 3 systems, one Xbox 360, and four rings (two silver and two gold) — all "for the furtherance of investigation."
Forfeiture is a valuable tool for law enforcement to cripple drug cartels by taking legal ownership of ill-gotten gains supporting illicit activities. My concern is when asset forfeiture proceedings take property and retain or sell it — keeping the profits regardless of whether the owners are convicted of a crime.
The goal of my Senate Bill 869 is simple: to require a conviction before cash and other assets are forfeited. There's nothing "appalling" about it, and it's certainly not "a give-away to drug dealers."
— State Sen. Mike Folmer is a Republican representing the 48th District, which includes parts of York County.