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asset forfeiture

PA Supreme Court to Examine Civil Forfeiture Issues

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has taken a case that will examine that state's civil forfeiture procedures, The Legal Intelligencer's Lizzy McLellan reports. The case involves the seizure of a Philadelphia woman's home and vehicle that were seized because her son sold marijuana out of her home.

The issue of asset forfeiture is heating up with federal cases also challenging the Philadelphia district attorney's procedures regarding asset forfeitures in drug-dealing cases. Critics say there is a conflict of interest because prosecutors get to keep the money earned from forfeitures in order to fund law enforcement activities.

Lawmakers Call for End to Forfeiture Sharing Program

The Washington Post's Robert O'Harrow Jr. reports: "Leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees on Friday called on the Justice Department to end the sharing of civil seizure proceeds with local and state police, a change that with few exceptions would cut the flow of hundreds of million of dollars annually to departments in every state." The concern is that law enforcement is incentivized to keep assets because the program allows police to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds, while federal agencies get 20 percent. In an investigation, the Washington Post found that more than $2.5 billion from cash seizures, conducted without search warrants and indictments, has been made since September 11, 2001.

Police Budgets Fueled By Asset Seizures

After examining 43,000 reports from local law enforcement agencies sent to the Justice Department, The Washington Post has found that "police agencies have used hundreds of millions of dollars taken from Americans under federal civil forfeiture law in recent years to buy guns, armored cars and electronic surveillance gear. They have also spent money on luxury vehicles, travel and a clown named Sparkles." While the law was meant to impede illegal drug trafficking, it also has meant that law enforcement can seize property without having to prove a crime has occurred, the Post further reports. The Post found that 81 percent of the $2.5 billion reported on the forms was taken in cases in which no indictment was filed.

Civil Forfeiture Is Broken in Philadelphia

Ronald D. Rotunda, a law professor at Chapman University Fowler School of Law, has a column criticizing over $64 million in civil forfeitures in Philadelphia when police have seized property during criminal investigations. At issue are people who have had their property seized even though they were not the ones charged with a crime. For one thing, property owners, "not the government, have the burden of proving that they are innocent owners." For another thing, he suggests that the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office is incentivized to pursue forfeitures because it is "almost as if the D.A. works under a contingent fee arrangement. For years, the DA’s Office has had a written sharing agreement with the Philadelphia Police Department that governs splitting forfeiture proceeds between the two agencies." He notes an economic experiment "showed that civil forfeiture laws encourage law enforcement to seize property instead of fighting other crimes, leading to systematic abuse."

A proposed class action has been filed to challenge civil forfeiture in Philadelphia, the Daily News reported last month.

Drivers Face Protracted Proceedings to Get Cash Back From Police

The Washington Post investigated 400 seizures from when police stopped drivers under a practice called "highway interdiction" and seized cash, having "their departments share in the proceeds through a long-standing Justice Department civil asset forfeiture program known as Equitable Sharing. Police can also make seizures under their state laws." Many drivers "had to engage in long legal struggles to get their money back after officers made roadside judgments about one of the most fundamental of American rights — the right to own property," the Post further reports. Advocates say that the practice has resulted in abuses of power in which the innocent suffer because their cash is seized even though they were not arrested.

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