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Plan Would Require Conviction Before Property Seizure

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A proposal to end civil asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania has bipartisan backing among state lawmakers.

House and Senate plans would halt a practice that allows law enforcement to seize property from someone accused, but not convicted, of certain crimes.

Supporters of the bills repeatedly equated the policy to theft. Rep. Jim Cox (R-Berks) said civil asset forfeiture is falling more heavily on the poor because most seizures are small sums of cash, far outweighed by the costs of going to court to retrieve seized belongings.

“To hire an attorney for thousands of dollars to get back my $200, you say, ‘eh, it’s not worth it,’” Cox said. “The principle of the thing is worth it, obviously.”

The legislation would require law enforcement to first get a conviction before seizing any property. Under the House and Senate bills, any money generated from the seizure or sale of those items could not go straight into the coffers of the law enforcement unit.

The effort faces fierce opposition from prosecutors, some of whom use civil forfeiture to help fund their investigations. The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association calls the policy is an important public safety tool and a way to take the profit out of drug crimes.

At a press conference Tuesday, several supporters hastened to add that they are not “anti-police.”

“We support law enforcement, we support our district attorneys,” said Rep. Tim Krieger (R-Westmoreland). “But no one should have their property taken from them without being charged.”

“We support the D.A.s," added Sen. Tony Williams (D-Philadelphia, "but we don’t support robbery represented in government, wrapped in the flag."

The city of Philadelphia, along with its police department and district attorney’s office, is facing a class-action lawsuit from property owners over its use of civil asset forfeiture.