OPED: How PA preys on private property

Ronald Fraser
DKT Liberty Project

Public funding of law enforcement agencies and the courts is meant to promote a fair and publicly accountable justice system.  Yet more than 60 law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania are undermining public trust as they rake in big bucks from the seizure and forfeiture of private property.

State Sen. Mike Folmer, who represents part of York County, is concerned with the ability of the state election system to withstand hacking.

Officially known as civil asset forfeiture, federal law allows local and state police officers to seize your cash, car or other private property on the mere suspicion that it is somehow connected to criminal activity — and without ever convicting or even charging you with a crime. The property is then turned over to the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) for proceedings under lax federal civil forfeiture laws — not under often more stringent state forfeiture laws. This stacks the deck against private property owners.

In addition, federal “equitable sharing” rules allow Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds recovered from the forfeited property.

This federal gravy train is too tempting for some police departments to resist.  Pennsylvania state and local law enforcement agencies fattened their budgets in 2016 by more than $10 million through this practice.

County district attorneys were first in line. The Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office had a really big year, with $2.9 million in forfeiture proceeds.  All other county district attorneys, combined, took in another $1.2 million, including $126,856 going to the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office and $312,377 to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General.

The Pennsylvania State police collected more than $970,000 from forfeited property and the Philadelphia Amtrak Police Department $910,571.

Folmer continues push for civil forfeiture reform

Elsewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, agencies receiving forfeited funds included the: Philadelphia Police Department, $434,753; Lansdale Borough police Department, $85,162; East Lampeter Township Police Department, $12,311;  City of Wilkes-Barre Police Department, $64,818; Cumru Township Police Department, $134,785; Palmer Township Police Department, $140,276;  Harrisburg Bureau of Police, $49,188; Hazelton Police Department, $71,534; Scranton Police Department, $77,738; Pocono Mountain Regional Police Department, $64,929; and the Allentown Police Department, $161,393.

A substantial portion of these amounts are taken from completely innocent Pennsylvania residents who cannot afford the legal representation needed to get their money and property back.  The poor are hit the hardest.

Formally adopted municipal budgets are important administrative vehicles allowing locally elected officials to maintain control over their police departments.  The federal “equitable sharing” program undercuts this control mechanism by setting up a backdoor funding scheme not regulated by Pennsylvania civil and criminal asset forfeited laws.

And, by giving police officers a huge financial incentive to aggressively target forfeitable assets, rather than pursue justice, the feds invite property rights abuse.

What to do? According to the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public-interest law firm, Pennsylvania lawmakers should follow the lead set by New Mexico and end asset forfeiture property seizures.

The 2015 New Mexico Forfeiture Act requires property seized by local and state law enforcement agencies, with few exceptions, to be adjudicated in, and under, New Mexico laws. Here is how it works.

  • The state of New Mexico acquires provisional title to all property seized by state or local law enforcement agencies at the time the property is used or acquired in connection with an offence that subjects the property to forfeiture. Provisional title authorizes the state to hold and protect the property.
  • New Mexico law enforcement agencies are not permitted to directly or indirectly transfer seized property to a federal law enforcement authority or other federal agency unless the value of the property exceeds $50,000 or the alleged crime is interstate in nature or sufficiently complex to justify transfer.
  • A person’s property is subject to forfeiture only after he or she is convicted, by clear and convincing evidence, in a state criminal court, of an offense to which forfeiture applies.
  • Law enforcement agencies cannot retain forfeited property. Forfeited currency and proceeds of the sale of forfeited property must be deposited in the state’s general fund.
  • Placing similar restrictions on Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies would rebuild trust.  Property owners in Pennsylvania would no longer wonder if their law enforcement officials are following even-handed, due-process procedures, or padding their agency’s budgets at the citizens’ expense.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Write him