PHILADELPHIA - The ACLU of Pennsylvania today released a report, entitled Broken Justice, that documents the impact of the aggressive and abusive use of civil asset forfeiture by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office.
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal mechanism that allows law enforcement to take and keep property it claims is connected to illegal activity without charging the property owner with a crime. Unlike criminal defendants, people facing the loss of their property through civil forfeiture have no right to an attorney.
“This report shows that the problems with our civil asset forfeiture system aren’t limited to Philadelphia,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Our state’s civil forfeiture laws are fundamentally broken and lead to abuse and injustice. These problems can only be fixed with statewide legislation.”
The report examines data obtained through Right to Know requests and from court files on forfeiture cases from 2012 to 2014. It found that the proceedings are heavily weighted in the district attorney’s favor. Among its findings:
- An estimated fifty-three percent of property owners facing forfeiture are African-American, though African-Americans make up only 9 percent of Montgomery County’s population.
- Between fiscal years 2010-11 and 2012-13, the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office collected nearly $1 million in annual revenue, which was equivalent to 7.3 percent of its approximately $13.2 million budget.
- The DA files forfeiture cases against 500 people annually.
- Property owners only successfully defended their cases in 0.3 percent of forfeitures.
- Hundreds of forfeitures occur without property owners even receiving notice of the forfeiture case against them.
- An estimated twenty-three percent of forfeitures are filed against people who have not been found guilty of a related crime.
- An estimated fifteen percent of property owners subject to forfeiture were never even charged with a related crime.
This report is the second in a series analyzing civil asset forfeiture practices in various counties in Pennsylvania. A June 2015 ACLU-PA report,Guilty Property: How Law Enforcement Takes $1 Million in Cash from Innocent Philadelphians Every Year — and Gets Away with It, found that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office forfeits over $1 million in cash each year from more than 1,500 people who were not convicted of any related crime, and, like Montgomery County, disproportionately targets African-Americans.
In June, legislation was introduced in both the state Senate and House that would reform the commonwealth’s forfeiture laws. Senate Bill 869 and House Bill 508 would require that individuals be convicted of a crime before their property is forfeited, and would remove the direct financial incentive for law enforcement to pursue forfeiture. A hearing on SB 869 before the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled for Tuesday, October 20, at 10:30 a.m.
A broad array of organizations on the right and the left support reforming civil asset forfeiture to protect Pennsylvanians’ due process rights, including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Keystone Progress, and the Pennsylvania Prison Society, among others. A national right-left coalition, Fix Forfeiture, also supports the proposed legislation to reform the commonwealth’s forfeiture laws.
A copy of the report, along with other information about civil asset forfeiture, is available at: www.aclupa.org/forfeiture.