ACLU Week In Review

By Ben Bowens, Communications Associate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

ACLU homepage

April 13 – April 17
Big news this week coming from the mother ship! For the first time in six years, the main website for the American Civil Liberties Union has been given a facelift. The new site (pictured right) has a fresh, modern feel, and even comes with a store where you can purchase brand new ACLU gear.

ACLU Gets a Makeover!

Check Out the New ACLU.org

ACLU.org hasn’t had a redesign since 2009. It’s an enormous site – over 40,000 pages and dozens of different types of content (from cases to blogs to Know Your Rights to press releases to FOIA documents and many more). We aimed to completely rethink the design to improve user experience and do a better job telling the story of the ACLU’s work. The design process strove to incorporate key elements of our identity: inclusivity, fearlessness, participation, transparency, and accessibility. By creating a site that connects with these core values, we hope to reach and engage with new audiences who care about protecting and defending civil liberties. explore…

PA Senate Advances DNA Collection Bil

-Bill would lower hurdles to collect suspects’ DNA

The state Senate is advancing a plan to expand law enforcement’s ability to collect people’s DNA once they’re arrested for certain crimes, but before they’re convicted. read more…

RFRA In Action

- Business Owners Must Serve Gays But they don’t have to like it.

A case involving the owner of Geno’s Steaks shows that the compromise between religious liberty and non-discrimination laws is hiding in plain sight, in the right to free speech. Business owners should be free to express their religious beliefs, and their preference to not serve gays, but should not be allowed to actually deny service. ACLU of Pennsylvania Deputy Legal Director, Mary Catherine Roper weighs in. read more…

Centre County Cellphone Scandal

Pair of Centre County judges seeks to destroy cellphone evidence

Two Centre County judges whose cellphone records showed they exchanged text messages with prosecutors trying cases before them want the evidence destroyed, claiming it will ruin their public images. “It is highly inappropriate to sue people for investigating public corruption, and to make matters worse, the people suing here are the judges and the district attorney who are the subjects of the investigation,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. read more…

Hunger Strike at Ohio Supermax Prison

ACLU Seeks Probe Amid Hunger Strike at Ohio Supermax Prison

The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for an independent investigation into conditions at Ohio’s super-maximum security prison amid a long-running hunger strike. The protest at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown began March 16 to draw attention to recreation and programming restrictions, including a ban on religious gatherings, imposed after an assault on a corrections officer. A prisons department spokesman said five inmates of about 40 who began the strike were still refusing meals Monday. read more…

ACLU Week In Review

By Ben Bowens, Communications Associate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

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April 6 – April 10
In case you missed it, a lot of the ACLU’s attention has been focused on immigrants this week. On Monday, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking to obtain documents related to the health care of “unaccompanied minors” held in Catholic Charities-operated facilities. Then, on Tuesday, the ACLU of Massachusetts defended a legal ruling that granted 100 immigrants being held in detention the right to fight for their freedom. The week ended with some really exciting news out of our national office regarding a certain viral video featuring a pretty profane comedian. Also, ACLU-PA is asking our supporters to contact their state representatives to take action in support of Governor Wolf’s moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania (links below).

Reproductive Health Care for Immigrants

Why the ACLU is suing over Catholic groups and abortions for undocumented immigrants

The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit this week to find out whether teenagers who are being housed in Catholic Charities–operated facilities have access to contraception and abortion. read more…

Immigrant Detention

ACLU to Defend Limits on “Mandatory” Immigration Detention

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts will defend a legal ruling that has allowed more than 100 Massachusetts detainees to argue for their freedom in the past year. At an “en banc” hearing on Tuesday, April 6, at 9:30 am, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit heard arguments in two cases–one of which was argued by the ACLU of Massachusetts–in which district courts rejected the government’s interpretation of a “mandatory” immigration detention provision. read more…

Body Cameras on Private Property

-ACLU warns public over newly passed Georgia bill

The ACLU of Georgia is cautioning the public over legislation allowing police to use body cameras on private property, saying the measure could infringe on the rights of innocent citizens in their own homes. read more…

TAKE ACTION, PENNSYLVANIA!!!

– In February, Governor Wolf took the decisive step of implementing a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania until a study of the death penalty initiated by the state Senate is released.

Now some members of the state House of Representatives are howling over the governor’s decision and have introduced a resolution to make their point. Urge your state representative to support the moratorium and oppose the House resolution!

Webby Award Nomination

– The ACLU’s video “Lewis Black Says F#%! Voter Suppression” has been nominated for a Webby Award. The Webby Awards are the most important and well-recognized awards for the Internet, with over 1,000 member judging body. The video “has been selected as one of the five best in the world in its category,” Online Video: Best Individual Performance, and is competing against videos created by College Humor and Funny or Die. While the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences is solely responsible for selecting the winner, there’s also a chance to win the Webby People’s Voice Award, which is voted for by the public. Check out the video below and VOTE HERE

Supreme Court Decision in Young v. UPS Highlights Need for Change in Pennsylvania

By Marah Lange, MSW Candidate, University of Pennsylvania

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Last week, women across the country celebrated when the Supreme Court ruled in support of pregnant workers in the case Young v. UPS.

When Peggy Young was pregnant with her now 7-year-old daughter, her doctor recommended she not lift more than 20 pounds. What happened next takes place all too often: UPS, her employer at the time, refused to provide her temporary accommodations, as it typically did for other workers, including people with disabilities, people with on-the-job injuries, and even people who had lost their commercial drivers’ licenses as a result of DUI convictions.

Despite Peggy’s willingness to keep working with simple modifications to her job, she was forced to take unpaid leave and go without income during a time when she needed it most. So Peggy went to court.

Last week’s Supreme Court decision sent Peggy’s case back to the lower courts, which originally ruled in UPS’s favor. And more importantly, it signaled to all employers that if they are accommodating most other workers with injuries or disabilities while refusing to accommodate most pregnant workers who need it, they are likely violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

While this ruling is a significant victory, many pregnant workers may continue to face difficulty requesting and receiving temporary accommodations or successfully challenging employers that discriminate. For example, women in smaller workplaces, women who are new to their jobs, and workers with limited bargaining power may not know their employers’ accommodations policies or the accommodations their co-workers have received.

That’s why 13 states, including Peggy’s home state of Maryland, have passed legislation to strengthen protections for pregnant workers. Now it’s time for Pennsylvania legislators to step up to the plate. The Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would strengthen protections for pregnant workers and help ensure that women aren’t put in the unnecessary and unsafe position of choosing between the health of their pregnancies and their jobs. This is especially critical for women working in low-wage jobs and for the 41 percent of families in which women are the primary breadwinners.

In order for women to have the freedom to make reproductive decisions for themselves and their families – like decision to have a child while working – temporary and reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers are a must.

Marah Lange is an MSW Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. She currently interns for the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project.

ACLU Week in Review

By Ben Bowens, Communications Associate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Mumia Abu-Jamal, Daniel Faulkner

Mumia Abu-Jamal, right, is an inmate at a Pa. state prison for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, left. (File photos/Pennlive)

This was a busy week for ACLU affiliates across the country with the biggest news coming out of Indiana. On Thursday, the ACLU’s national office issued a response to Indiana’s proposed amendments to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which you can read more about below. As for the Pennsylvania office, we were in federal court on Monday and spent the rest of the week fielding calls about Pennsylvania’s own religious freedom law. Here’s a quick look at some of the ACLU involved stories that made headlines this week.

Reaction to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)

ACLU Statement on Proposed Amendments to Indiana RFRA

The events in Indiana over the last week represent a dramatic change in the way our country reacts to discrimination hiding under the guise of religion.

The Indiana legislature and the governor made a terrible and dangerous mistake, and they were met with widespread condemnation and a backlash that has hurt their state’s reputation and its economy. read more…

ACLU hosts panel discussion to clarify ‘religious freedom’ law

While Republicans work to the clarify the law, the Indiana ACLU gathered a panel of community leaders for a discussion to help explain the law’s intent. However, it also gave the public the chance to ask whether they thought the law would allow for discrimination. read more…

Pennsylvania has a religious freedom law too, but not like Indiana’s

Religious freedoms laws have traditionally been used to keep governments from violating people’s religious beliefs, according to Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Those laws have never been created so that entities could have permission from the government to discriminate, she said. read more…

Pennsylvania’s “Revictimization Act”

Oral arguments in our lawsuit challenging the “Revictimization Relief Act” were heard in Federal Court

A new state law designed to ensure that crime victims aren’t “revictimized” is actually an unconstitutional attack on free speech, opponents of the legislation argued to a federal judge Monday. read more…

Centre County Officials Square Off Over Text Messages

Stage is Set for Courtroom Showdown With Centre County Officials Fighting Each Other

The three lawsuits stem from several criminal cases in recent months in which defense attorneys used records of text messages between judges and prosecutors (obtained through the county through Right to Know requests) to allege bias and preferential treatment in favor of the DA’s office. read more…

TSA vs. Black Women’s Hair

ACLU Attorney Finalizes Agreement With TSA To Track Hair Searches, Assess Possible Racial Discrimination

Accusations of racially selective airport searches by the Transportation Security Administration have prompted officials to deem the practice discriminatory. This comes years after Solange Knowles spoke out about her own experience with airport “Discrim-FRO-nation” on Twitter but it appears as though black women are still receiving routine hair searches. read more…

License Plate Readers

Lawmaker, ACLU want limits on police license plate readers

Conservative Republican state Rep. Peter Breen has introduced legislation that would put a 30-day limit on data collected by license plate readers. He has the backing of the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union, a group he fought unsuccessfully in court over the gay marriage issue. read more…

Invasion of Privacy or Public Safety Measure?

By Paul Anderson, Larry Frankel Legislative Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Police Body Camera

The recent tragedies in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Los Angeles and now Madison have thrust questions of how law enforcement interacts with members of the public into the national spotlight. One issue of specific focus has been available technologies that would—ideally—allow for greater oversight and accountability of officer interaction with the public. Body-worn cameras that record interactions made during an officer’s shift have advocates from both the police and civilian worlds. Members of the public believe that recording of encounters will better document potential police misconduct and provide greater transparency over state actors, and some parties in law enforcement envision body cameras can be valuable tools to increase public trust in the police.

Police body cameras are an admittedly thorny issue for the ACLU because of the potential for placing two equally compelling interests on a direct collision course. The aforementioned desire for greater accountability of state actors is offset by privacy interests of individuals who are recorded. Any body camera policy, whether imposed by the General Assembly or implemented at the municipal level, must delicately balance these interests.

At the outset, the police should have a near-zero discretion policy in turning off the cameras during encounters with the public. The only exceptions should be for conversations involving crime victims or witnesses. Too much latitude in powering off the cameras will inevitably lead to manipulation by some officers, as shown in a recent excessive force lawsuit in St. Louis.

In addition, all subjects should be made aware that their interactions with police are being recorded, but higher standards should govern in certain circumstances. For example, a recording inside a person’s home should be permitted in a non-emergency situation only with the consent of the residents or pursuant to a valid search warrant. Similarly, policies should accommodate crime victims and witnesses who request that a camera be turned off before divulging sensitive information.

The actual recording of encounters is not the only aspect of body cameras that raises significant privacy concerns. Storage policies must also be especially sensitive of individual privacy interests. Retention policies, like all other components of a comprehensive policy, should be directed to promote government oversight or other public interest. The interest in holding the state accountable is much lower when there is no evidence or accusation of police impropriety. Therefore, videos without any public or investigatory interest should be deleted as soon as is feasibly possible. Recordings that either involve significant police escalation or involve an incident that a civilian complains about should be retained longer, even if they are not being used in any criminal proceeding. The social interest in these recordings is much higher, meaning they should be retained and made available, in redacted form if necessary.

Finally, it is important to remember that use of body cameras is, at bottom, designed to permit greater public oversight of government behavior, not vice versa. Therefore, any legislation should include sweeping prohibitions against the use of body cameras as a general surveillance tool. The potential for misusing cameras to secretly record First Amendment activity- such as political protests or religious activity- is significant enough to create a demand for policies that explicitly disavow this type of monitoring.

Body cameras are not a panacea. In the Staten Island incident, a bystander captured video evidence of an officer using a chokehold on Eric Garner that was in violation of NYPD policy. Even though the coroner ruled Garner’s death was a homicide caused by compression of the neck and chest, a grand jury still declined to indict the officer responsible. Given deeper questions of structural inequality underscoring the current policing landscape, it is unlikely that increased recording of encounters alone will sufficiently restore public trust. However, body cameras can provide a potentially useful additional level of government oversight, as long as any legislative or administrative policies are developed with a clear and principled balancing of two crucial—and occasionally competing—interests.

Paul Anderson is the Larry Frankel Legislative Fellow at the ACLU of Pennsylvania and a third-year student at Penn State Dickinson School of Law.

“Everyone’s a little bit racist”

By Paloma Wu, Legal Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

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At this American civil rights impasse, we are up against a powerful and dangerous fantasy: the delusion that our intention to be race neutral makes us so, and the delusion that our intention not to discriminate means we don’t. No longer are slur-hurling city officials, police-protected lynch mobs, and smoke-filled redlining rooms the most formidable force opposing equality in America. It is all of us.

A growing body of research on implicit racial bias shows that about 75% of whites and Asians demonstrate an implicit bias in favor of whites compared to blacks, and over 200 related published studies show that implicit bias influences judgment, decisions, and behavior. An onslaught of images, lore, and language continuously tie brown and black skin in with the negative. Implicit racial bias operates powerfully but in the background, at the unconscious level, impacting our judgment and shaping our decisions such that we often act contrary to our conscious intent to behave in a race neutral way. Most insidiously, our implicit racial bias calls the shots without us registering that it has. We reason away the race biased logic that formed the basis of our decision, and we cleave to the far more flattering race-blind version of ourselves that we deeply personally identify with.

Since taking the well-validated Implicit Association Tests (“IATs”), I cannot claim to be more sturdily built. I am ashamed, but not surprised, to learn that I strongly associated black people with having weapons on the Weapons-Harmless Objects IAT, and that was just the beginning. Despite who I am, what I have done with my life, who I intend to be, and that I am neither white nor male, I am a petri dish of implicit racial and gender bias. Sharing my corner of shame: most of the eight million IAT takers, including Malcom Gladwell. Gladwell, who is half black, deftly explained in his bestselling book, “Blink,” that his “moderate automatic preference for whites” on the IAT left him “feeling creepy.” For others, the revelation of racial bias is embarrassing, deeply humbling, and disturbing.

After you take a few IATs, consider this:

  • White Americans, on average, vastly overestimate the criminality of blacks.
  • Many Americans incorrectly believe that black Americans use more drugs than whites: five times as many white than black people use drugs in this country, but black Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate as white Americans.
  • “Shooter bias” studies show that black and white shooters both show bias against blacks in both response times and errors, meaning we will shoot black people more often and faster than we will whites.
  •  In shooter bias studies, we even pick up the pace if first shown a negative media article about a black perpetrator of a crime.
  •  Americans of all races more often see blacks as perpetrators and whites as victims; in one study, 70% of viewers of a crime story who falsely recalled seeing a picture of the perpetrator believed that perpetrator had been a black man.

Then consider how a blazing color line separates blacks and whites in crime and punishment:

A select few departments are trying to incorporate racial bias training to curb the tide, but the tide is nearly as powerful as our fantasy that it does not exist. The common refrain of police officers, elected officials, district attorneys, and policy makers with skin in this game is not “We Shall Overcome,” but rather—“We Did Not Intend.” But our knowledge about implicit racial bias in this era of political correctness renders the intent issue moot. Equal protection questions can only be addressed through data and analysis—do our laws in fact discriminate and are they in fact discriminatorily enforced. There is no silver bullet, but it is a necessary step, along with our acceptance of implicit racial bias as the norm: the unintentional constant that we must build in to any algorithm we use to formulate a next step—if we want it to be forward.

Also, feel free to sing along to this Avenue Q song, for a boost with the acceptance part…

(Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post: “The Effects of Implicit Racial Bias in Law Enforcement and Lessons from the Era of Anti-Lynching Legislation.”)

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

Paloma Wu joined the ACLU as an awardee of the 2014 Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP Public Service Fellowship. As a Simpson litigation associate, Paloma worked on antitrust, securities, and intellectual property matters, and she represented clients in successful prisoner civil rights (Pogue v. Diep) and asylum cases.

What We Know (and Don’t Know) about Racial Profiling in Pennsylvania

By Sara Rose, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Police - cruiser on Ben Franklin Parkway

Almost four years after Philadelphia agreed to reform its policing practices to reduce racial profiling, little improvement has been made. Philadelphia police still stop and frisk African-American and Hispanic pedestrians at rates substantially higher than whites. Philadelphia, unfortunately, is not alone in targeting minorities for stops and pat-downs. Most cities that keep data on pedestrian stops show similar disparities. Perhaps more troubling, however, is that few police departments require their officers to record any data on pedestrian stops or pat-down searches, making it impossible to know the breadth of the problem.

Racial profiling refers to the practice of targeting people for stops, interrogations and searches without evidence of criminal activity and based on individuals’ perceived race, ethnicity, nationality or religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that stopping an individual on account of his or her race, even if there is another legitimate reason for the stop, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Twenty years ago, much of the focus on racial profiling was on traffic stops following the I-95 “turnpike” studies, which showed huge disparities in the number of African-American drivers stopped by police compared to whites. Many law enforcement agencies, including the Pennsylvania State Police, now require officers to record data, including the race of drivers, when they conduct traffic stops. But there is no federal or Pennsylvania law that requires local police departments to keep data on traffic or pedestrian stops, even when police search the vehicle or person.

This lack of data leads to the perception that racial profiling is an urban myth. At a recent community forum in Pittsburgh, a police commander actually responded to a question about racial profiling by stating that “racial profiling does not exist.” But he had no way of knowing whether his officers engaged in racial profiling because Pittsburgh does not require its officers to record data on pedestrian stops.

Statewide legislation is needed to ensure that police departments track the race or ethnicity of individuals stopped by police and the reasons for those stops. The Fourth Amendment requires police officers to have reasonable suspicion that crime is afoot and that the individual stopped is involved in it before detaining that person on the street. To frisk the person, the police officer must have reasonable suspicion to believe that he or she has a weapon.

Our review of pedestrian stops in Philadelphia shows that 37 percent of the over 200,000 pedestrian stops in 2014 were made without reasonable suspicion to believe that the individual was involved in a crime, and only 47 percent of the frisks were made based on reasonable suspicion that the individual was armed. In 95 percent of all frisks, no evidence was seized.

These stops and frisks also disproportionately targeted minorities. Although Philadelphia’s population is 42.26 percent white, 43.22 percent black, and 8.5 percent Hispanic, 80.23 percent of stops were of minorities. The disparity was even greater for frisks, with minority residents accounting for 89.15 percent of frisks.

It is highly likely that similar rates of racial disparities and suspicionless stops would be found in other Pennsylvania cities if the data were available. A 2002 study that looked at vehicle and pedestrian stops by the Erie police over a six-month period found a significant racial disparity in vehicle stops, pedestrian stops, and searches. Indeed, essentially all studies of racial profiling find evidence of racial disparity. This had led to requirements that police departments collect and analyze data on stops. Seventeen states require police to collect data on traffic stops and thousands of police departments across the country collect pedestrian-stop data, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, and San Francisco.

In addition to mandating that police departments collect and analyze data on stops, the Pennsylvania legislature can require police departments to implement practices that promote fair and impartial policing, including:

  • Having a detailed written policy that prohibits racial profiling and clearly defines acts constituting racial profiling;
  • Informing individuals that they have the right not to consent to a search; and
  • Barring the use of agency funds, equipment or personnel for the purpose of detecting noncitizens who are in violation of immigration laws and prohibiting officers from asking individuals about their immigration status.

The state can also mandate police officer training on racial profiling, both as part of officers’ initial training and their mandatory in-service training.

While these steps will not eliminate racial profiling, they will reveal where it is occurring and counter the “racial profiling does not exist” mindset of many in law enforcement. After all, choosing who to stop or search based on race or ethnicity is not an effective law-enforcement strategy. Although African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be stopped and searched by police than whites, they are less like to have weapons or contraband than whites who are searched. Law enforcement should be based on best practices, not stereotypes. Thirty other states have adopted laws addressing racial profiling. Pennsylvania should join them.

This blog post is part of a series for Black History Month.

Sara J. Rose is a staff attorney in the organization’s Pittsburgh office. Before joining the ACLU of Pennsylvania, she was a legal fellow with Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

It’s Time to Get Real About Race and the Death Penalty

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

SQ Lethal Injection Room

Two weeks ago, Governor Wolf announced a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania and granted a reprieve from execution to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4. Wolf will continue granting reprieves- a power he is granted by law – until an analysis commissioned by the state Senate returns with its recommendations and “all concerns are addressed satisfactorily.”

In his announcement of the moratorium, Wolf referred to capital punishment as “unjust” and cited several reasons for using the word. In his memorandum that explained the moratorium, he spent several paragraphs discussing the role of race in capital punishment.

Death penalty abolitionists don’t use race as one of their top tier messages, and who can blame them? A 2007 survey found that support for capital punishment actually goes up when white respondents hear messages of racial disparity. White America is still sticking its collective fingers in its ears when it comes to race and the criminal justice system.

Pennsylvania has consistently shown a penchant for sentencing black defendants to death. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 188 people on death row in the commonwealth, 120 of them, or 64 percent, are people of color, as of October 1, 2014. Over the 15 years that I have been involved in death penalty repeal work, that number has been as high as 70 percent.

A study by Professor David Baldus and his colleagues at the University of Iowa found that a black defendant in Philadelphia was 3.9 times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant in a similar case.

The Baldus study was 17 years ago and was based on data from 1983 to 1993. As part of the Senate-supported analysis, researchers are trying to update the question of race and the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, according to one of my sources, at least one high-profile district attorney stymied that work for months by refusing to release data from his county on race in capital cases. He was ultimately persuaded but only after much cajoling. Some public officials just don’t want to talk about facts in the death penalty debate.

The race of the victim may play an even greater role in deciding who lives and who dies. Homicide victims are white in about 50 percent cases. But since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the victims were white in 76 percent of cases that ended in execution.

There are many reasons why capital punishment is slowly being swept into the dustbin of history. Since 2007, six states have repealed their death penalty statutes, bringing the total of non-death states to 18. In 2014, only seven states carried out executions, and 80 percent of those were in three states. Governor Wolf did the right thing in bringing a halt to the machinery of death, and he used the right word to describe it- unjust.

To learn more about the debate over Pennsylvania’s moratorium on executions, check out the discussion on WITF-FM’s Smart Talk, which featured Spero Lappas, who is a member of the ACLU of PA’s South Central Chapter board, a retired criminal defense attorney, and former cooperating counsel with ACLU-PA.

Andy Hoover is the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and is the former chair of the board of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

This blog post is part of a series for Black History Month.

12 Things You Need to Know About Civil Asset Forfeiture

By Ben Bowens, Communications Associate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about civil asset forfeiture recently. It’s been in the news, featured on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and we’ve been talking about it a lot lately. Since this issue can get bogged down with a lot of legal jargon, I’ve decided to break down the most important aspects of this practice in a way everyone can understand… GIFS! (Most of this will fill you with rage. You have been warned!)

1. Civil asset forfeiture is a law enforcement practice that lets police take property they claim is tied to a crime. The problem with that is that the law doesn’t actually require police to charge or convict anyone of a crime before taking their stuff. Wait, what?

2. You may not be guilty, but according to the police, your stuff (and your money) is. Yes, prosecutors can file forfeiture claims against your property in civil court. (See United States v. Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More or Less, Each Containing One Pair of Clacker Balls) What the…?

3. SHOW UP! According to research, the majority of civil forfeitures are “by default” meaning the property owner didn’t show up and the prosecutors never had to offer proof to a judge. Oh, come on now!

4. Often times, many owners aren’t even notified that their property has been forfeited. That feeling you have in the pit of your stomach is rage building.

5. The cost of court vs. the amount you’ve already lost. Often times the value of the property taken is relatively small (like $200 cash), meaning that hiring a lawyer and taking time off work could potentially be more financially taxing than what you’ve already lost. U mad?

6. Pennsylvania makes $13 Million in profits from forfeitures annually. (Check out the stats!)

7. All of the money goes to the prosecutors and the police budgets. Hmmm… can you say financial motive?

8. Things get worse when you’re brown. According to the ACLU, asset forfeiture practices often go hand-in-hand with racial profiling and disproportionately impact low-income African-American or Hispanic people.

9. Philly is by far the worst offender in Pennsylvania! The city of brotherly love’s police force rakes in about $5 million each year, with the DA’s share accounting for 10% of the budget. Turns out it’s rarely sunny in Philadelphia :(

10. Is reform even possible? Maybe, states like Minnesota and Utah and D.C. have taken steps to reform forfeiture by disrupting profit incentives and forcing convictions. However, before you can ‘fix’ the law, you’d first need to fix the idea behind the law.

11. What is criminal asset forfeiture? Thanks for asking! CRIIMINAL asset forfeiture is when law enforcement is only able to take your stuff if its actually part of an underlying criminal case AND only after you’ve been convicted of an actual crime. A faint light is starting to appear at the end of the tunnel!

12. Remove the profit motive! What if the money and property seized from legitimate forfeiture claims went to the state or county funds? Seems like you’d have about $13 million extra lying around to fund all sorts of things like, I don’t know, EDUCATION!

TAKE ACTION NOW! The silver lining on all of this is that you can do something about it RIGHT NOW! We’ve set up a page that will allow you to contact your state representative and urge them to support legislation that is being introduced this session. If you’re an organization, you can also join the Coalition for Forfeiture Reform.

Ben Ben Bowens is a social and digital media specialist. Before joining the ACLU of Pennsylvania as the Communications Associate, he served as the Digital Media Producer for CBS3/KYW-TV, where he covered the 2008 election and launched the station’s social media presence.