To Think that SB 8 Becoming Law will Effectively Reform Civil Asset Forfeiture is Naive

By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Criminal Justice Intern

Elizabeth Young’s Philadelphia home was taken from her because her son was charged with selling marijuana from it. Photo from Philly.com.

Elizabeth Young is a 72-year-old grandmother and lifelong Philadelphia resident. Young has never been charged or convicted of a crime. And yet, in 2010 Young had her home and vehicle seized by Philadelphia police through civil asset forfeiture, a mechanism allowing law enforcement to seize property they think has been involved in a crime, whether or not its owner has been charged or convicted of a crime. Because civil forfeiture takes place outside criminal statutes, those who have their property taken are not afforded legal counsel. The practiceis also financially lucrative for police departments and district attorneys, and it disproportionately affects the poor and people of color.

Under the Trump administration, it may expand.

In a speech Monday to the National District Attorneys Association, Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed intent to “develop policies to increase forfeitures.” According to a senior justice official, Sessions intends to achieve this in part by rolling back Holder-era policies put in place following complaints of law enforcement abuse. To Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, civil asset forfeiture is about bringing in the revenue of crime, not about bringing the crime to court, saying on Wednesdaythat “sometimes there will be criminal prosecutions, sometimes there won’t.” And the current president doesn’t seem to understand the concept of asset forfeiture reform in the least. In February he described forfeiture reform as situations where “[criminals] have a huge stash of drugs. So in the old days, you take it. Now we’re criticized if we take it.”

In the absence of federal guidance, some states are taking initiative and reforming civil forfeiture themselves. Twenty-four states have reformed forfeiture laws, but effective reform is slow and halting. The Institute for Justice notes that a “common refrain in the states where reform efforts have been unsuccessful is that resistance from law enforcement leaders killed the bills.”

For proof of that, look at the Keystone State. Three weeks ago, Governor Wolf signed SB 8, a bill reforming legislation relating to civil asset forfeiture. ACLU-PA has previously written about SB 8, but now that it’s law, let’s recap.

SB 8 started out as a strong bill that would prohibit forfeiture without a criminal conviction. It was backed heavily by advocacy groups. And then law enforcement lobbyists got involved, and the bill was weakened. Wolf signed that version of the bill.

The new reform law doesn’t do much to protect citizens, and what reforms it provides are modest. Although sponsors touted the amendments as raising the commonwealth’s burden of proof, the amended bill places the initial burden of proof on property owners, most of whom are unrepresented, rather than the government. The amended bill also makes it easier for the government to take property by default without the government ever having to present evidence to justify the forfeiture.

It does require a hearing for cases involving real property. But it misses the mark on actual protections. All of the proceeds from forfeiture still go indirectly to law enforcement; they are supposed to be used for fighting drug crime, but often are used for general operating expenses like salaries. In Philly that includes the salaries of several assistant district attorneys who do nothing but forfeiture.

Property owners can still have their property taken away without being convicted of a crime. And counsel still isn’t guaranteed. These are issues that need to be addressed if civil forfeiture reform is going to have any tangible impact.

And people like Elizabeth Young need reform to have a real impact. Young lost her house and minivan after her son, who lived at her home, was arrested for possession and intent to distribute marijuana. He was convicted when law enforcement agents found the drugs after searching Young’s home and car. Law enforcement agents then seized Young’s property, claiming it was connected with the crime.

In order to receive relief, Young had to take her case up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In May, nearly eight years after her house was seized, they ruled in her favor,deciding that authorities must prove that “owner had actual knowledge of the illegal use of the property or consented to the underlying criminal activity” in order to seize assets.

Young’s Pa. Supreme Court ruling is a victory. To think that SB 8 becoming law will effectively reform civil asset forfeiture is naive.

If you’re interested in learning more about civil asset forfeiture, check out ACLU-PA’s three reports on the topic here, read Isaiah Thompson’s ground-breaking reporting from Philadelphia City Paper on the topic, and the Institute for Justice’s Policing for Profit report (which talks a lot about Philly). Sarah Stillman’s excellent piece in The New Yorker is also worth a read, and this bit from John Oliver is worth watching if you want to giggle while you learn and scream at the television.

IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than anywhere in the country, and it’s not clear that the nationwide fight to eliminate juvenile life without parole sentences is over. Photo from The Atlantic.

 

  • The Atlantic: “The Reckoning Over Young Prisoners Serving Life Without Parole”

“Life sentences are an American institution. According to a recent Sentencing Project report, more than 200,000 people are serving either life in prison or a ‘virtual’ life sentence: They haven’t been explicitly sentenced to spend their natural lives behind bars, but their prison terms extend beyond a typical human lifespan. Of these prisoners, thousands were sentenced as juveniles. More than 2,300 are serving life without parole, often abbreviated LWOP, and another 7,300 have virtual life sentences. Only after they serve decades in prison do members of the latter group typically become eligible for parole.”

  • Fox43: “PA Supreme Court: Police must obtain search warrant to draw blood from unconscious DUI suspects”

 “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled today that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant before drawing blood from unconscious suspects they believe to have been driving under the influence (DUI). Justice David Wecht’s opinion recognizes that motorists are ‘deemed to have given consent’ when on the road in Pennsylvania under the ‘implied consent’ statute but notes that the driver, under the same law, has a right to refuse and if he/she can’t, the test may not be conducted. The decision stems from an incident that took place in 2012.”

  • The Marshall Project: “Pennsylvania went too far with new sex offender registration laws, says state’s supreme court.”

“In 2012 state lawmakers amended the “Megan’s Law” there to require lifetime registration requirements. Several men who long ago were convicted of sexual offenses, and who had fulfilled the 10-year registration requirement in place at the time, sued, arguing the new law violated their constitutional rights. On Wednesday, they won their case. Allentown Morning Call Related: Read the decision. Supreme Court of Pennsylvania More: Background on the case. Allentown Morning Call

“The consequences of rescinding DACA would be severe, not just for the hundreds of thousands of young people who rely on the program — and for their employers, schools, universities, and families — but for the country’s economy as a whole. For example, in addition to lost tax revenue, American businesses would face billions in turnover costs, as employers would lose qualified workers whom they have trained and in whom they have invested. And as the chief law officers of our respective states, we strongly believe that DACA has made our communities safer, enabling these young people to report crimes to police without fear of deportation.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

No quick or easy remedy for Philadelphia’s profitable forfeiture machine

By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act allow all seized assets to go directly to the offices of prosecutors. The ACLU-PA found that prosecutors overwhelmingly target disadvantaged individuals without the means to fight the forfeiture in court. Photo from Occupy.com.

In a class action challenge to Philadelphia’s forfeiture practices, a federal district court ruled on February 23 that people who have lost property through forfeiture will have to file separate lawsuits to be compensated, even if the court finds some of Philadelphia’s practices unconstitutional. The ruling underscored one key message: that relief for the victims of this deeply broken system is still a long way off.

The lawsuit, Sourovelis v. City of Philadelphia, was filed by the Institute for Justice (a Washington, DC-based property rights group) with the assistance of local civil rights hero David Rudovsky in the summer of 2014. It was filed at the same time that ACLU-PA was forming a broad-based Coalition for Forfeiture Reform to push for statewide legislative change to Pennsylvania’s civil forfeiture laws. On both groups’ agenda was removing the direct financial incentive for prosecutors’ offices to aggressively pursue forfeiture.

Under Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act, 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeiture go directly to the offices of the prosecutors who make decisions about what property to go after for forfeiture, who to target, and how ruthlessly to litigate forfeiture cases. In every county examined by the ACLU-PA, prosecutors disproportionately targeted people of color for forfeiture, taking mostly small amounts of cash where owners had little incentive to fight the forfeiture in court.

Senate and House bills would have removed this pecuniary incentive to use forfeiture overzealously and target people who can’t fight back by diverting forfeiture proceeds to a general fund instead. But in 2016, these bills were gutted at the urging of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association to remove all of the major reform components.

The current statute specifies that prosecutors are supposed to use forfeited property for drug enforcement, community-based drug- and crime-fighting programs, or relocation and protection of witnesses in criminal cases. However, the Sourovelis complaint alleges that, in Philadelphia, forfeiture proceeds are split between the police and District Attorney’s office and used in part to pay prosecutors’ salaries. The lawsuit makes the somewhat novel claim that the prosecutors’ financial stake in the outcome of forfeiture cases denies property owners due process.

In May 2015, the trial court rejected the City’s bid to throw out this due process claim, ruling that it couldn’t decide the claim without first resolving a factual dispute between the parties about whether the DA’s office actually used its forfeiture proceeds as contemplated by statute or used it for salaries.

In its February 23 ruling, the court made clear that even if the court ultimately sides with the plaintiffs and rules that the Philadelphia DA’s stake in the outcome of forfeiture cases is unconstitutional, the court will not order the return of all class members’ forfeited property. Rather, anyone who has lost property in Philadelphia to forfeiture would then have to file an individual lawsuit to determine what relief they’re entitled to.

With meaningful legislative reform seemingly off the table in Harrisburg and the federal trial court sending a signal that the Sourovelis lawsuit will not provide a quick or easy remedy for the victims of Philadelphia’s profitable forfeiture machine, it looks like Pennsylvanians will remain vulnerable to forfeiture abuse for a while longer.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

The ACLU is updating its police body camera recommendations to clarify public release guidelines and improve accountability. Photo by Ryan Johnson.

“In Pennsylvania, Black students were four and a half times more likely to be arrested than White students. This rate is two and a half times greater than the national rate for Black students. While Black students made up only 15% of student enrollment, they were 40% of the students arrested in Pennsylvania — a total of 2,074 Black students were arrested in 2013–14. In contrast, White students made up 69% of public students, but received 41% of student arrests.”

  • From ACLU National: “We’re Updating Our Police Body Camera Recommendations for Even Better Accountability and Civil Liberties Protections”

“We have also added language stipulating that police departments cannot use ‘investigative privilege’ as a basis for withholding footage where the suspect is a police officer (who likely is the one who recorded the video and has been allowed to see it). As we argue at greater length here, the rationale for such a privilege (tipping off suspects) does not apply when the suspect is a police officer. We do allow that redaction, subject to limitations, can be used in such situations.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

ACLU Week in Review

By Ben Bowens, Communications Associate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Guilty-Property-Report---FI

June 1 – June 5
This week we set our sights on reforming Pennsylvania’s flawed civil asset forfeiture practices. After releasing a report entitled “Guilty Property: How Law Enforcement Takes $1 Million in Cash from Innocent Philadelphians Every Year — and Gets Away with It,” we, along with our coalition partners, held a press conference announcing our support of legislation aimed at reform. Check out the report, listen to our legislative director explain the issue and read some other ACLU stories making headlines this week below.

Let’s reform asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania!

New ACLU Report Shows Philadelphia DA Seizes $1 Million in Cash Annually from Innocent Philadelphians

The ACLU of Pennsylvania today released a new report that documents the impact of Pennsylvania’s unfair civil asset forfeiture laws and the aggressive enforcement of these laws by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. Civil asset forfeiture is a legal mechanism that allows law enforcement to take and keep property it claims is connected to illegal activity without charging the property owner with a crime. read more…

ACLU Supports Legislation to Reform PA’s Asset Forfeiture Laws

The Directors Guild of America says networks and studios are to blame for the “deplorable” dearth of female directors in Hollywood, following a call by the American Civil Liberties Union for an investigation into the industry’s “systemic failure” to hire female directors. read more…

Andy Hoover on The Rick Smith Show

Michigan launches a Mobile Justice app!

Mich. joins other states with ACLU app to record police

A mobile app that allows residents to film police encounters on their phone, and send them to the ACLU moments after the recording is over is becoming available in more states.The ACLU of Michigan is the latest state chapter to roll out an app called “Mobile Justice.” read more… PA’s app is coming soon!!!

ACLU of North Carolina turns 50

ACLU of North Carolina celebrates 50th anniversary
Read more at http://www.wral.com/aclu-of-north-carolina-celebrates-50th-anniversary/14690170/#PAf8It0WQHIxYlbC.99

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding by sparking conversations about the civil liberty issues the group has tackled over the years.The ACLU-NC will commemorate the anniversary on Sunday with a panel and history exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte. read more…

ACLU pushing for police reform in Minneapolis

ACLU presses Minneapolis to move on police reforms

American Civil Liberties Union leaders laid out their list of recommended police reforms Thursday as they called on Minneapolis officials to help reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. An ACLU report made public last week found that people arrested in Minneapolis for low level crimes were nearly nine times more likely to be black or Native American than white. read more…

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.

Part II: How to Reform Forfeiture

By Scott Kelly, Legal & Policy Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Civil Asset Graphic_1_Logo

Last week in Part I of our blog series on forfeiture, “Why Civil Forfeiture Is Broken”, we talked about how reporter Isaiah Thompson pulled a thread and unraveled the story of civil forfeiture in Philadelphia. In other counties and other states, reporters and commentators have been pulling their own threads, leading to exposés of forfeiture abuse both small and large, both deadly serious and seriously funny.

The result of all this attention is that the tide is turning against a practice that lets the government take people’s property with near total impunity – and meaningful forfeiture reform finally looks like a real possibility. States like Minnesota and Utah and the District of Columbia have already taken positive steps in the direction of reform – by, for example, disrupting the profit incentive and strengthening the burdens of proof prosecutors must meet to forfeit property. And United States Attorney General Eric Holder recently issued a policy order limiting the ability of state law enforcement to profit from civil forfeitures under federal law.

Beyond Repair

But the lessons of the past caution against trying to “fix” civil forfeiture. Over a decade ago, Congress tried exactly that when it passed a comprehensive overhaul of federal civil forfeiture law meant to address the disturbingly high number of defaults – forfeitures that happened without a property owner even reaching a hearing before a judge. Called the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, the legislation enacted a number of supposed “fixes,” including a provision forcing the government to prove its case and another awarding attorneys’ fees to owners who successfully defended their property against forfeiture. But even with these added restraints in place, the federal government civilly forfeits more assets today than ever before, leading commentators to conclude that “virtually nothing has changed.”

That’s because civil forfeiture isn’t a broken law. It’s a broken idea rooted in a fundamental contradiction: that the government can forfeit property connected to a crime without proving that the crime actually happened. The only way to “fix” this basic contradiction is to abandon it. Even former heads of the federal government’s Asset Forfeiture Office agree, writing in a recent Washington Post Op-Ed that civil forfeiture is “unreformable.”

A Better Way

Gavel graphic

Meaningful forfeiture reform has to end “unreformable” civil forfeiture laws and replace them with a system that works. That system – called criminal asset forfeiture – requires that forfeiture happens only as part of an underlying criminal case and only after a person is convicted of an actual crime. Criminal forfeiture already exists as one option under Pennsylvania law, but legislation should make it the exclusive procedure for forfeiture. That way every property owner facing forfeiture would get the full range of protections the Framers provided for people accused of crimes.

Good forfeiture reform would also put an end to the profit motive by making sure the proceeds from forfeiture go into a general pot, like the state treasury or county fund, instead of directly into the coffers of law enforcement. This ensures that law enforcement makes decisions based on what is best for the community, not their budgets. And it’s not like the funding for pursuing forfeiture would suddenly dry up. Police and prosecutors would simply have to fund forfeiture enforcement in the same way they fund every other type of enforcement: through the normal, democratically-accountable budgeting process.

Take Action

Police and prosecutors defend forfeiture as an important tool in their battle against drugs and other societal blights, and neither of these reforms would stand in the way of that. If anything, requiring a conviction and ending the profit incentive make forfeiture more effective, by ensuring it’s used against the right people and for the right reasons.

In Harrisburg, a group of legislators are standing up for ordinary Pennsylvanians and plan to introduce legislation in the state House and Senate to enact both of these reforms. The ACLU of Pennsylvania strongly supports these efforts and calls on our members to contact their representatives to do the same. Advocacy groups interested in seeing our state’s forfeiture laws reformed can also join the Coalition for Forfeiture Reform. And maybe together we can end civil forfeiture once and for all.

Scott Kelly Scott Kelly joined the ACLU in February of 2014 and currently serves as a legal & policy fellow. Scott received his law degree from Columbia University School of Law and his undergraduate degree from Yale University. His current work focuses on civil liberties issues connected to property rights and the criminal justice system.

Part I: Why Civil Asset Forfeiture Is Broken

By Scott Kelly, Columbia Law School Social Justice Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Counties rake in over $13 million in profits from civil forfeiture on a yearly basis.

Counties rake in over $13 million in profits from civil forfeiture on a yearly basis.

Three years ago, Isaiah Thompson, a Philadelphia-area reporter, got a tip about police seizing money from a man without arresting him. Law enforcement took the cash, and that was it. No lawyers were called. No charges were filed. The money just disappeared.

The tip intrigued Thompson. And over the following weeks and months, the reporter pulled on that single thread – a guy and his vanished cash – to unravel the story behind a sprawling system of property seizures that had until then existed in the murky shadows of Pennsylvania’s justice system.

“Guilty” Property and Innocent Owners

Many innocent property owners give up, because disputing the forfeiture of their property costs more than the property is worth.

Many innocent property owners give up, because disputing the forfeiture of their property costs more than the property is worth.

That system – called “civil asset forfeiture” – lets police take property they claim is tied to a crime. But as Thompson’s reporting would painstakingly document, the perverse thing about civil forfeiture is that the law doesn’t actually require police to convict or even charge anyone with an alleged crime.

This is because, in the strange world of civil forfeiture, the property itself is considered “guilty” – a legal concept that dates to medieval times and long since should have gone the way of feudalism. But it’s on the basis of this absurd, antiquated fiction that prosecutors are allowed to file forfeiture petitions against property in civil court, instead of against humans in criminal court. In this way, prosecutors avoid the constitutional protections that apply to criminal defendants, including appointed counsel and stronger burdens of proof.

With the deck stacked against property owners like this, it’s no wonder that so many of them don’t contest the loss of their seized cash, cars, and homes. In one article, Thompson indicated that roughly 80 percent of all civil forfeitures in Philadelphia were “by default” – meaning the property owner didn’t dispute the forfeiture and the prosecutors never had to offer any proof to a judge. The relatively scant reporting from other counties suggests similar or worse patterns in other parts of the state. A review by LancasterOnline of all the cases filed in Lancaster County since 2013 revealed that the number of times a property owner filed an answer to a forfeiture petition could be counted on one hand.

Of course, some default forfeitures are criminals throwing up their hands and saying “you got me.” But in many cases, it’s the deep-rooted unfairness of civil forfeiture itself that’s at play. Anecdotal evidence indicates that many owners aren’t even notified by prosecutors that their property is being forfeited. Others decide to walk away from their property, because they simply don’t have the time to show up for the multiple court dates required to get it back.

Perhaps the most disturbing explanation for these defaults is that the value of the property at stake is often pretty small – say, $200 – and the costs of hiring an attorney and taking time off work much higher. Faced with this grim math, a completely innocent person will not “contest” the forfeiture, because the system won’t allow it. Forfeiture in those cases is nothing less than state-sanctioned theft, with law enforcement taking money directly from the wallets of regular Pennsylvanians and putting it in their own pockets.

Bulging Pockets

The above is an excerpt from an agreement between the Philadelphia District Attorney and police, divvying up the profits from civil forfeiture.

The above is an excerpt from an agreement between the Philadelphia District Attorney and police, divvying up the profits from civil forfeiture.

And take money from people’s pockets, civil forfeiture does. Annual reports released by the Pennsylvania Attorney General show that civil forfeiture generates a staggering $13 million in profits each year across the state, with some counties taking in upwards of $1 million annually.

All of this money is then split between the prosecutors and police and deposited directly into their budgets. To many critics, this is the rotten cherry on top of the whole melted sundae of unfairness that is civil forfeiture: the very agencies entrusted with enforcing forfeiture have a direct financial motive to go after as much property as possible.

The incentive is so perverse that even the umpires are starting to complain, with the President Judge of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court going so far as to remark that the DA’s conflict of interest “severely undermines” confidence in our state’s justice system.

To put the power of this conflict into perspective, take the example of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and his civil forfeiture machine. Philadelphia law enforcement rakes in approximately $5 million every year from forfeiture, and the DA’s share of those profits account for nearly 10 percent of his budget.

Philadelphia law enforcement may be the worst offenders, but other counties aren’t far behind. Law enforcement from Montgomery, Allegheny, Dauphin, Delaware, Lancaster, and Bucks counties all seize upwards of $500,000 in private property on a yearly basis.

Profits like this fuel a vicious cycle of injustice. As civil forfeiture swells budgets, law enforcement pours ever more resources into pursuing civil forfeiture, boosting profits even higher. It’s gotten so bad that the district attorney in one Pennsylvania county has taken to awarding “forfeiture bonuses” to his staff.

There may have been good intentions when our state’s civil forfeiture laws were passed 30 years ago, but those days are long gone. Civil forfeiture today has become like a bad magic trick where property vanishes from the hands of innocent owners never to be seen again.

Check back next week for Part II of our series where we’ll talk about the basic reforms that could fix our state’s broken forfeiture laws…

Scott Kelly Scott Kelly joined the ACLU in February of 2014. He is a recent honors graduate of Columbia Law School, where he received the Milton B. Conford Book Prize for the best essay on jurisprudence.