PHILADELPHIA - The ACLU of Pennsylvania today released a new report that documents the impact of Pennsylvania’s unfair civil asset forfeiture laws and the aggressive enforcement of these laws by the Philadelphia 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.
The report, entitled Guilty Property: How Law Enforcement Takes $1 Million in Cash from Innocent Philadelphians Every Year — and Gets Away with It, examines data obtained through Right to Know requests and from court files from 2011 to 2013. The report also includes interviews with several individuals with firsthand experiences with the forfeiture system.
“Supporters of the current civil asset forfeiture process say it’s a necessary tool for stopping drug kingpins. But forfeiture has been used against ordinary citizens, many of whom are poor and without the resources to fight back against the strong arm of the government,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Unlike criminal defendants, people facing the loss of their property through civil forfeiture have no right to an attorney.
Among the report’s findings:
- Almost one-third of cash forfeiture cases involve money owned by people who have not been found guilty of a crime – about 1,500 Philadelphians each year.
- Sixty-three percent of Philadelphia cash forfeitures each year involve money taken from African-Americans, who make up only 43 percent of Philadelphia’s population. African-American people account for 71 percent of innocent owners who have cash forfeited in Philadelphia each year.
- Roughly 6,000 forfeiture cases are ﬁled annually in Philadelphia.
- Annually, the District Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia takes and keeps 100 homes, 150 vehicles, and roughly $4 million in cash, for a total of around $5 million in income.
- Each year, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office receives forfeiture income equivalent to about 7 percent of its budget.
- Requests by the Philadelphia DA’s office to forfeit cash (called “forfeiture petitions”) were granted in an estimated 96% of cases, settled in 3%, and rejected in only 1% of cases.
- The vast majority of property seized in Philadelphia was small amounts of cash, with over half of those involving amounts of $192 or less.
The report suggests that unfairness pervades the system at every stage of forfeiture proceedings, from the inadequacy of initial notice to the complexity and length of cases to the prohibitive cost of reaching a final hearing before a judge. Property owners who disputed forfeitures had to appear a median of four times before having their case decided. Failure to appear at every hearing resulted in automatic forfeiture.
The problems of civil asset forfeiture are not limited to Philadelphia. Over the last ten years, law enforcement has taken over $100 million in private property through civil asset forfeiture statewide.
In addition to the ACLU of Pennsylvania, a broad array of organizations supports reforming asset forfeiture to protect Pennsylvanians’ due process rights, including the Commonwealth Foundation, Americans for Prosperity-Pennsylvania, Keystone Progress, and the Pennsylvania Prison Society, among others. The effort is also supported by the Coalition for Public Safety, a national organization that includes FreedomWorks, Americans for Tax Reform, the ACLU, and the Center for American Progress.
This week, a bipartisan group of state senators will introduce legislation to deter abuse of asset forfeiture.
A copy of the report, along with information about the Coalition to Reform Forfeiture in Pennsylvania, is available at: www.aclupa.org/forfeiture