On March 23, 2016, police arrested Christopher “Bmore” Hawkins, age 46, of Spring Garden Township, Pennsylvania on drug charges. Hawkins was caught attempting to sell heroin to two informants. As part of his plea bargain, Hawkins pleaded guilty to several charges, including “possession with intent to deliver heroin” in order to receive a prison sentence between four and eight years.
During a search of his house, law enforcement officials seized several items. These included televisions, a 1996 Dodge Neon, and a 2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK. Police were able to take possession of Hawkins’ property using a procedure known as civil asset forfeiture, which gives police the power to seize a person’s property or assets if said property and assets are suspected of being involved in a crime.
I recently reported on the heavy-handed use of civil asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania and, in particular, in the city of Philadelphia. In one case, police tried to seize Norys Hernandez’ home when her nephew was found to be dealing drugs on the property. While Hernandez did, eventually, get her property back, it took several years for the case to be settled.
Civil asset forfeiture disproportionately affects low-income communities. Since asset forfeiture is a civil and not a criminal process, there is no right to counsel. Innocent owners have to pay for a lawyer to retrieve their property—something which is beyond the means of many.
While there have been recent attempts to reform asset forfeiture in the state, there are still few protections for property owners. Also, up to 100% of the proceeds from forfeitures go to law enforcement to fund their programs. This has led to accusations of “policing for profit,” i.e., that the police are incentivized to seize property.
A York County judge last week agreed. While he agreed that Hawkins was a criminal, Judge Craig Trebilcock criticized the York County Drug Task Force’s actions. There was no evidence linking the items seized from Hawkins’ home to criminal activity, wrote Trebilcock. The police, rather, went on “shopping spree, for the benefit of their budget, based solely on the property’s value.”
Trebilcock stressed that Hawkins’ was not an isolated case. “It is important to note, however, that overzealous forfeiture actions by the Drug Task Force in the time frame of this case have not been isolated in nature,” he wrote. Looking at other seizures, the judge noted that officer of the Drug Task force “disproportionately seized” game consoles and big-screen televisions in people’s homes.
Responding to Trebilcock’s opinion, District Attorney Dave Sunday said reforms to civil asset forfeiture are a key priority for him. “When I make changes to things or I adapt processes and procedures, it is not an indictment on past practices,” he said. “We constantly strive to become better at everything we do.”
Among the changes Sunday has implemented, civil forfeiture cases are now screened by Senior Deputy Prosecutor John Hamme. Hamme—who reports directly to Sunday—helps provide oversight and can answer law enforcement’s questions. If property is deemed to have been taken outside of what Hamme feels are appropriate parameters, it is automatically returned to the owner.
Sunday has also persuaded county commissioners to pay for two more detectives to be assigned to the Drug Task Force in order to alleviate the idea that the task force is funded by forfeitures. Finally, Sunday has stopped law enforcement from compelling people from agreeing to asset forfeiture as part of extending a plea arrangement.
Sunday stresses his changes are not designed to eliminate civil asset forfeiture in York County. “We cannot swing this pendulum so far that we forget why we’re doing this in the first place. We can adapt based on best practices,” he said. “But at the same time, we will continue to seize money and seize assets from drug dealers.”
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.