Inside Philadelphia's Asset Forfeiture Racket


The Philadelphia City Paper dug into the city's use of civil forfeiture, a practice that allows the government to seize property without proving it is connected to a crime, and estimates that hundreds of people lose their property every year without being convicted of a crime. From the story:

When Philadelphia Police officers stopped Dwayne Marks as he was driving north on Broad Street near Temple University last year, Marks says he wasn't particularly worried. Marks, who is a black man in his late 30s from East Mount Airy, has faced drug charges in the past—but he's straightened up, he says. When the police asked whether he had a criminal background, "I told them, 'Yeah,'" he recalls. "I told them the truth." 

As he saw it, he had done nothing wrong and had nothing to hide. And so, when police asked to search his truck, Marks said they could go ahead. 

He describes the encounter, initially that is, as calm. It was when police found more than $6,000 in cash in his car—money he says was related to a number of rental properties he owns, he says—that things changed.

"They … took me down to the district, handcuffed me, took my money … [searched] my whole truck again. Then they got a dog to sniff my whole truck out—and still didn't find nothing." There were no drugs on Marks or on his vehicle; no charges were filed. But the interaction wasn't over, Marks says: "They got mad. … They said, 'We're going to make you go to court for your money, then.'"

Marks would soon find himself sucked into a strange, upside-down corner of the legal system, where the burden of proof would be reversed to rest on the accused, where those opposing him would seem to call the shots—and where the minor matter of his undisputed innocence of any charge would not seem to be a factor.

Millions of dollars taken via forefeiture disappear into city coffers annually, and the money is spent in secret. From City Paper:

In recent years, the Philadelphia DA's forfeiture program has brought in an average $6.2 million annually; since 1987, the earliest year for which City Paper could find data, the program has raised more than $90 million. Last year, the DA reported a fund balance of $10.5 million, as well as $5.5 million in new revenue and $5.9 million in expenses—all of this on top of the budget allocated to the DA by the city.

How is this multimillion-dollar pot spent? The DA won't say. The office cited confidentiality issues in declining repeated requests to provide details of how this fund is used, let alone a full breakdown of its expenditures. If there is a larger stream of unreported public expenditures in the city, we've never heard of it.