Seize First, Ask Questions Later: Philadelphia Police Take Over $6 Million a Year in Civil Asset Forfeiture

The Philadelphia City Paper has an incredible cover story about civil asset forfeiture abuse in Philadelphia. According to their investigative reporting, Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office seizes over $6 million in asset forfeiture annually. Of these proceeds, the vast majority comes from seizing cash and currency. In fact, there have been almost 8,300 currency forfeiture cases since 2010. The average amount of cash taken in a currency forfeiture case was $550, while some cases involved amounts less than $100, belying the myth that forfeiture mainly takes money from drug kingpins.

As noted back in August, when the Institute for Justice reported on a Virginia sheriff who was convicted for bribing police with asset forfeiture funds,

In civil asset forfeiture, if police suspect your property was used in a crime, they can seize it and sell it, even if you haven’t been charged with a crime.

Meanwhile, the City Paper notes a parallel between civil asset forfeiture and the controversial policy of “stop-and-frisk:” “Call it ‘stop and seize,’ a legal dragnet that catches the innocent, guilty and unaccused alike.” Indeed, both disproportionately affect young male Hispanics and African-Americans.

Under Pennsylvania state law, civil forfeiture depends on preponderance of the evidence. This is a weaker burden of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the standard used for criminal cases. Little wonder the state earned a D from the Institute for Justice in Policing for Profit, a survey of civil asset forfeiture laws.

Some cities in the Keystone State abuse civil forfeiture more than others. City Paper compared Philadelphia County, the largest county in the state, with Allegheny County, which is the second-largest and includes Pittsburgh. Allegheny County had around 200 civil forfeiture cases since 2008. But in just 2011 alone Philadelphia County had 6,500. Incredibly, the City Paper notes that “Los Angeles County, with a population more than six-and-a-half times Philadelphia’s, also successfully sued to keep just $1.2 million in seized assets,” i.e., a fifth of what Philadelphia County seized.

The City Paper also quotes IJ attorney Scott Bullock, one of the authors of IJ’s Policing for Profit report, on how to end these abuses of power:

“Pennsylvania law has already turned law-enforcement officials into bounty hunters — and placed the pursuit of property over a commitment to the fair and impartial administration of justice…If you want to [prevent] law-enforcement officials from anticipating forfeiture revenue, you have to change the law that allows them to profit from other people’s property in the first place.”

Unfortunately, civil asset forfeiture abuse is not the only civil liberties violation in Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love has passed a ban on feeding the homeless, while a nearby township even threatened to fine a woman who runs a free lunch program. The city has also suffered from rampant eminent domain abuse and needlessly blocks entrepreneurship. It’s ironic that the hometown of the Liberty Bell is one of the most hostile cities to freedom today.

— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice

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