It was May 2015, and still early in the morning in rural Berks County, Pennsylvania. Dana Smith, age 48, looked outside and was surprised to see a line of police cars waiting outside. “It was like a line of state troopers’ car and sheriffs’ cars,” she said. “They said they have a warrant, and I said, ‘A warrant for what?” and they said, ‘To search the house.’”
It turns out that Smith’s boyfriend, Edward Chesney, was under suspicion of trafficking drugs. Law enforcement believed he had based his operation in Smith’s own home, and now they were looking for evidence.
Smith, who says she has never had anything to do with drugs and who does not have a criminal record, was furious. She shouted at the police, screaming they didn’t have any right to enter her house. Law enforcement officers restrained her by handcuffing her and making her sit at a table in the kitchen.
While the police found no drugs in the house, they did find $3,000 in cash. They took the money with them. Law enforcement was able to take the cash using a legal procedure known as civil asset forfeiture. This is where police may take an individual’s property if it is suspected of being involved in a crime. It is not necessary in Pennsylvania for police to charge the property owner with a crime for their property to be taken. To police, the $3,000 looked like drug money.
Since civil forfeiture is a civil and not a criminal process, property owners have no right to counsel. Innocent owners determined to fight for their property are left with the prospect of paying expensive legal costs out of pocket or attempting to navigate the complex legal system unaided. No wonder four-fifths of Pennsylvanians who have property taken never attempt to get it back.
In addition, law enforcement agencies in the Keystone State retain 100 percent of the profits from civil asset forfeiture. This has led critics of the process to claim the police have an incentive to seize property. I recently reported that Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams confirmed the county used money from seizures to fund police operations.
“Law enforcement has a direct financial incentive to not only seize property, but pursue forfeiture even when there is a very tangential relationship to criminal activity,” said Darpana Sheth of the libertarian Institute for Justice (IJ). “As long as forfeiture money is being used to self-fund law enforcement agencies, there is always going to be an abuse of forfeiture practices.”
“I was really, really angry that they took my money,” said Smith. The $3,000 had, in fact, been her tax refund. Smith had planned on using some of it to pay for a limousine and a tuxedo for her son’s senior prom.
Smith broke up with her boyfriend, who was charged and sent to prison. Later, however, Chesney’s case was dismissed once it was shown that law enforcement had carried out searches without a warrant.
Smith, meanwhile, fought to get her money back. In 2018, three years after they took it, prosecutors offered to give her half the money back. Smith took the deal.
“I can’t say why they agreed to give me the $1,500 back because, usually, they don’t want to give you anything back,” explained Smith. “It [civil asset forfeiture] is like free money for them, like a blank check that they can write to themselves.”
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.