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.

Whitewood v. Wolf – A Case for the Freedom to Marry

By Ben Bowens & Molly Tack-Hooper, ACLU of Pennsylvania

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For more information about the case and FAQs, please visit aclupa.org/whitewood

National Commission on Voting Rights – Philadelphia

By Ben Bowens, Communications Associate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

NVVR

On February 6, at a National Commission on Voting Rights (NCVR) public hearing organized by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, voters, activists, and voting rights advocates gathered at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia to share their experiences of the voting challenges they continue to face in Pennsylvania. The ACLU of Pennsylvania was an organizing partner for the event, and I had the privilege to attend and take pictures of the proceedings. Like many in attendance I was blown away by the impassioned testimony given by both the invited guests and audience members who braved the elements to voice their concerns. I was equal parts disappointed by the lack of local media, which should have come out in full force to attended such an event.

In my opinion, the most compelling testimony of the evening came from members of the deaf community who showed up in numbers to make their voices heard. We often speak of the need for translators at polling placing for the Hispanic and Asian community, but rarely do we consider the needs to deaf and blind voters.

“When a deaf person comes in to vote, how are they going to be helped,?” said Samuel Hawk, a deaf voter who signed while an ASL translator spoke. “There has to be an ASL interpreter inside polling places, and now there’s no one there.”

Hawk was one of several deaf and hard of hearing voters who testified during the public testimony period. Challenges facing persons with disabilities was among a diverse range of voting rights and election administration issues addressed by expert witness panels and general public witnesses representing civic engagement groups, government watchdogs, student and labor union representatives and civil rights organizations including advocates from the African-American, Asian-American and Latino community.

Check out my full slideshow of the event below and for more information, visit the Lawyers’ Committee’s website.

More information on the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s voter ID challenge can be found here.

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