Currently, law enforcement officials in Pennsylvania have the power to seize property they believe to be connected with a crime, even if the owner is not charged, a practice known as civil asset forfeiture.
More than $100 million has been seized in Pennsylvania by way of civil asset forfeitures in the last 10 years, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. A bill proposed by State Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) would change the way these forfeitures are handled.
“Civil asset forfeiture was first introduced as a way to, you know, combat drug dealers who were amassing property and cash,” said Patrick Nightingale, attorney and local spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Even if you couldn’t get a conviction on them, you could at least deprive them of their ill-gotten goods.”
Nightingale said under the proposed legislation, law enforcement officials would still have the authority to seize property stemming from crime-related activity, but they would have to successfully convict owners to have the property permanently stripped.
“It provides that layer of review by an elected official, the district attorney or the attorney general, and will go a long way to preventing some of this abuse that has caused the legislation to be filed,” he said.
The bill would also prohibit police departments from keeping the money from seized assets. Instead, that money would first be used for restitution to any victims of the crime. If there is no restitution, the money would be added to the state’s general fund.
Dane Merryman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, said his organization could support the idea of requiring a conviction to seize assets depending on how the legislation is written, but they are “strongly opposed” to forfeited funds going to a general fund.
“Asset forfeiture is a very important aspect of being able to afford investigative work in the counties, and we believe that the funds should stay in the county of forfeiture,” Merryman said. “That’s where the issues that led to the forfeiture occur, and, you know, all the communities out there right now are dealing with drug issues.”
Under SB 869, any ambiguities within the law will favor the owner. This is not the case with the current law, and leads to some departments taking advantage of the system, according to Nightingale.
“You now have a very realistic situation where law enforcement departments are incentivized,” he said. “They have a reason to go out and find these assets, because they get to keep them.”
Merryman is open to the idea of evaluation, and said all professions require it to improve.
“This is one of those things, certainly, that merits a review,” he said. “Whether or not there’s a strong need at the end of that review remains to be determined.”
The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.