A recent report on the state of civil forfeiture in the U.S. has given Pennsylvania a near-failing grade, calling for greater reforms for the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws.
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool that gives law enforcement agencies the ability to seize assets from individuals suspected of committing a crime or being involved in illegal activity, even if the property owner has not been formally charged with wrongdoing.
In December 2020, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a Virginia-based public interest law firm, released the third edition of its “Policing for Profit” report, a document alleging unwarranted punitive seizures through the civil asset forfeiture process across the country.
In its profile for Pennsylvania, IJ criticized a number of provisions within the state’s existing asset forfeiture laws and gave the state a ‘D-’ grade. According to the report, Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies seized more than $279 million using forfeitures between 2002 and 2018. The state additionally generated $180 million between 2000 and 2019 via the U.S. Department of Justice equitable sharing program, which allows state and local law enforcement to partner with the federal government to seize and forfeit property under federal law—and claim up to 80 percent of the proceeds—regardless of a state’s own forfeiture laws.
The IJ lauded Pennsylvania for implementing several reforms to its asset forfeiture laws since it published the second edition of its report five years ago. The state’s lawmakers passed Senate Bill 8 during the 2017-18 legislative session to implement provisions that shift the burden of proof from property owners to the government, improve transparency in auditing and reporting, and provide an extra layer of protection to acquitted individuals who seek the return of their property. Changes were also made to delineate how law enforcement can use forfeiture proceeds.
“While I support further reforms to expand the role of a criminal conviction in asset forfeiture, this bill is a step forward to create higher burdens of proof imposed on the seizure of private property by the government,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said in a news release after signing the reform bill. “In divided government, we must recognize the value of bipartisan progress, while we continue to advocate for greater reform.”
The reforms, however, weren’t enough for IJ to give Pennsylvania more than a ‘D-’ grade. The organization recommended the state completely eliminate civil forfeiture, direct all forfeiture proceeds to a non-law enforcement fund, fully close the federal equitable sharing loophole, and further strengthen accountability and transparency requirements for seizures.
Out of all 50 states, New Mexico is the only state to receive the highest grade—an “A”—in IJ’s report because of changes its lawmakers implemented in 2015 that eliminated civil forfeitures and directed all forfeiture proceeds to the state’s general fund. An IJ analysis from 2020 showed that the elimination of civil forfeiture, which is often cited as a deterrent for criminal activity, did not have a noticeable impact on New Mexico’s crime rates.
Until Pennsylvania and states with similar civil forfeiture laws on the books overhaul their systems, anyone who has had their cash or property seized by police or federal agents should immediately consult a civil asset forfeiture attorney.
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