York County in Pennsylvania recorded a drastic drop in forfeited items under the county’s civil asset forfeiture statutes, news sources report. This is largely due to District Attorney Dave Sunday’s efforts in making sure that the owners of forfeited assets are given a fair investigation.
When the DA assumed office in the middle of the 2018 fiscal year, he vowed to make changes in the way civil asset forfeiture cases were handled in the county. Seeing the whole process of law enforcers forfeiting the citizen’s properties as a wide-scale money-making venture for the agencies, the new DA pledged to reform the forfeiture paradigm.
Civil asset forfeiture was approved and encouraged by the law and law enforcement agencies under the guise of helping combat drug-related crimes. Over the years, however, it became a law that put the burden of proof on the people’s shoulders instead of the government assuming responsibility to prove the guilt of the suspects.
In York County, all judges must approve all forfeiture cases. The defendants don’t need to be convicted for the forfeiture to be approved. The owners of forfeited properties don’t even need to be the defendants. This means that there is no safeguard in place for those unfortunate owners who were not in possession of their property when it was seized.
People who let their family or friends borrow their car, for example, are not exempt from the problems that arise when their vehicle is taken by law enforcers. The proceeds from properties taken by the police and the county’s Drug Task Force go directly to the Drug Forfeiture Fund that these agencies use in their operations.
Recognizing a bias in the way asset forfeitures work, the York County DA took it upon himself to improve the practice of seizing property from the roots of an investigation. Under his directive, only items utilized in making and trafficking drugs and other illegal substances are seized.
His initiative also mobilized law enforcers to forfeit cash and guns of suspected drug traffickers instead of other property like vehicles or appliances, or other miscellaneous items. His advocacy is to change forfeiture from the investigation stage before it even reaches the judge who will approve it according to the law.
So far, his leadership has been effective. In the fiscal year 2016-2017, before he took over, there were 107 vehicles and 176 miscellaneous items forfeited. The next year was an adjustment period, and approximately 93 vehicles and 153 miscellaneous items were seized in 2017-2018. DA Sunday’s first year in service already garnered productive results, with the annual forfeiture reports recording just seven vehicles and 10 miscellaneous items seized for 2018-2019.
The DA’s initiative has not gone unnoticed by other stakeholders in the community. Faculty from ACLU of Pennsylvania, the University of Pennsylvania, and a local defense attorney commended the new DA’s work in reforming how civil asset forfeiture investigations were done. They all remarked that the system started by the DA has been fairer to property owners because there is no apparent desire to forfeit personal property, and it is more geared to impairing drug operations by seizing cash and guns almost exclusively.
The DA’s future plans include the utilization of the Drug Forfeiture Fund for school information drives on drugs, improving wellness courts, and other drug-crime prevention activities that unite the community and law enforcement agencies.
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