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 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.