A drug task force in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is missing roughly $150,000 from a civil asset forfeiture fund in what “appears to be an internal theft,” District Attorney Heather Adams told the press Monday.
Adams announced June 1 that an internal audit of the Lancaster County Drug Task Force revealed that someone has stolen up to $150,000 from the task force’s asset forfeiture fund. She didn’t name any potential suspects, but she did indicate that it was likely someone with access to and knowledge of the drug task force.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, prosecutors and police can seize property—cash, cars, real estate—suspected of being connected to criminal activity, regardless of whether the owner is charged or convicted of a crime. Proponents of the practice say it is a vital tool for disrupting drug trafficking and other organized crime. However, civil liberties groups like the Institute for Justice argue that it creates perverse profit incentives for police.
Sources indicate that Adams’ predecessor, former Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman, was improperly using asset forfeiture funds intended for drug enforcement on unrelated expenses, such as leasing and maintaining a 2016 Toyota Highlander for $21,000.
After Stedman’s alleged impropriety came to light, Lancaster news outlet LNP filed a public records request with his office for its civil asset forfeiture records in September 2018. The DA’s office denied the request, forcing LNP to take the case to Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, which made a determination in the newspaper’s favor.
The DA’s office appealed to the Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County, but with help from the Institute for Justice and the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic, LNP was ultimately able to gain access to the documents. Most of the records it sought have since been turned over to the public, but litigation is ongoing over certain other records involving forfeiture auctions.
“One has to wonder whether that $150,000 discrepancy contributed to the former DA’s willingness to comply with LNP’s requests for the task force’s detailed forfeiture records,” said Jennifer McDonald, a senior research analyst at the Institute for Justice (IJ), a libertarian-leaning non-profit public interest law firm. “Behavior like this is exactly why forfeiture transparency practices are so important.”
Stedman was elected to county judgeship in November 2019 and joined the county bench in January 2020. Adams took over the DA’s office in January after running on a platform that included more transparency around Lancaster’s asset forfeiture practices.
During Monday’s press conference, Adams announced that she was transferring the case to the Pennsylvania Attorney General to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. She outlined the steps her office is taking to improve civil asset forfeiture procedures as a result of the audit and her previous commitments to add transparency to the process.
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