EDITORIAL: DA Sunday does the right thing
"We try very hard to do what's right."
York County District Attorney Dave Sunday was talking to senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo about property forfeiture when he said that.
It shouldn't be so surprising to hear that law enforcement is trying to do the right thing, even when handling drug dealers.
And yet it is both surprising and refreshing, after decades of horror stories about property taken during drug raids, to hear that Sunday is making a point of trying to do what's right.
On Feb. 20, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in Timbs v. Indiana stating that the Constitution's Eighth and 14th Amendments protect citizens from "excessive fines" levied by states, which includes property seized from drug dealers and later ordered forfeited by judges. That has always been true federally, but the justices have now agreed it applies to states as well.
With the ruling, Indiana must return a $42,000 Land Rover it seized from Tyson Timbs, who was arrested in 2013 and served time for selling $400 of heroin. He bought the Land Rover with life-insurance money after a family member died, but the state took the vehicle under forfeiture laws.
Pennsylvania has been operating since 2017 under a statute that states police "can't just seize things they hope will be forfeitable," Sunday said.
Until then, police departments were free to take practically anything they wanted to in drug cases. In Philadelphia, that meant real estate was seized and sold in what one Philadelphia media outlet, WHYY, called the "DA's side hustle."
Locally, it meant that police arresting drug dealers would take everything in sight, down to video games, tools and clothing, even if it didn't belong to the person being charged, according to defense attorneys.
Attorney Suzanne Smith recalled a case in which her client's car was seized because the client's boyfriend was hiding drugs in it at night — so the client wouldn't realize he was a drug dealer. Smith fought the forfeiture but lost.
One problem, Sunday said, is that the money raised from York County's two annual sales of forfeited property had become a "money stream" for law enforcement.
When Sunday took office in January 2018, he took a hard look at the forfeiture process and decided to make some changes.
He brought in senior deputy prosecutor John Hamme to review items seized by police to determine not only whether a forfeiture would be legal but also whether it would be the right thing to do.
The purpose was to stop some practices, such as seizing vehicles when the owners had loaned them to family members and didn't know they were being used for drug sales.
There are still plenty of items that are legally seized from drug dealers and sold. The Drug Task Force auction on Black Friday in November featured 30 vehicles, including a Mercedes and two Infinitis, along with cellphones and other goods.
But it didn't have the kind of haul that was seen in the Black Friday auction of 2017, which sold 43 vehicles and 45 smaller items, ranging from TVs and computers to jewelry and tables.
"The goal here is for civil asset forfeiture to be a punishment and deterrent to drug dealers," Sunday said. "The goal should not be to raise money (for enforcement)."
And the change from the top is making a difference.
"It feels like they're actually punishing the drug dealers now instead of punishing everyone around the dealers," defense attorney George Margetas said.
That's what should have been happening all along. People shouldn't be punished because a family member is dealing drugs, and even drug dealers don't deserve to lose an excessive amount of possessions.
It's refreshing that Sunday has stepped up and made these changes, not just willingly, but eagerly. This is the kind of law enforcement leadership that we need.