Pennsylvania Assembly Calls For Annual Audits of Everything Cops Seize

Tepid asset forfeiture reforms don't include conviction before they can take your valuables.


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Cops in Pennsylvania will still be able to seize your cash without your being convicted of a crime, but they might soon have to report everything they confiscate.

An asset forfeiture reform bill is on it's way to Gov. Tom Wolf's desk after a unanimous vote Tuesday in the state House. If Wolf signs it—his spokesman said Tuesday the governor plans to do so—Pennsylvania will become the latest state to make some changes to the laws allowing law enforcement to seize homes, cars, cash, and other property suspected of being part of a drug crime.

The reforms are welcome, but they are baby steps compared to what some other state legislatures have done this year.

The bill would require county governments to conduct annual audits of all asset forfeitures by local police departments. Those reports, complied by the state attorney general and turned over to the General Assembly each year, should provide a glimpse into how widespread asset forfeiture is in Pennsylvania.

The bill also establishes a higher legal threshold before law enforcement agencies can seize large assets like cars and houses, and specifically prohibits the forfeiture of real estate without a hearing.

"This better protects property and it improves transparency. It's an improvement over the status quo," Fred Sembach, chief of staff for state Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon), sponsor of the bill, told Reason Tuesday.

Folmer's original bill would have required a conviction before assets could be seized by law enforcement, but amendments to the bill (pushed by district attorneys) removed that key element.

In final form, the bill is a moderate set of reforms that will offer limited protections from abusive forfeiture proceedings like those uncovered in Philadelphia by the Philadelphia City Paper and the Institute for Justice, a national libertarian law firm. According to data obtained by IJ, Philadelphia has seized more than 1,000 homes, 3,000 vehicles and $44 million in cash over 11 years.

Forfeiture data from other areas of the state is scarce right now. Folmer's bill will help identify where and why assets are being taken from Pennsylvanians and whether those targets were ever charged or convicted of a crime.

That information can be helpful in pushing further reforms. For an example, have a look at CJ Ciaramella's recent reporting showing how poor neighborhoods in Chicago are hardest hit by asset forfeiture as policymakers there assess the need for additional reforms.

Holly Harris, executive director for the U.S. Justice Action Network, a national criminal justice reform group, called the bill "a first step" in reforming Pennsylvania's asset forfeiture laws and urged Wolf to sign the bill.

The courts are also forcing some changes in how law enforcement in Pennsylvania uses asset forfeiture. Last month, a 72-year old grandmother from West Philadelphia won an important victory in front of the state Supreme Court.

The court said the Philadelphia DA's decision to seize Elizabeth Young's home and minivan when her grandson was convicted of selling small amounts of marijuana was a "grossly disproportional" punishment that may violate the Eighth Amendment's protections against excessive fines. "The amount of forfeiture must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense that it is designed to punish," the court wrote.

In another case, Philly cops seized the home of Chris and Markela Sourovelis after their son was arrested for selling drugs on the property. With help from the Institute for Justice, the Sourovelis family challenged the seizure and eventually won.

For a state that has some of the worst asset forfeiture laws in the nation, according to IJ, any improvement is welcome. The reforms awaiting Wolf's signature will provide more data to go along with the horrific anecdotes of asset forfeiture abuse like what happened to Young and the Sourovelis family, but Pennsylvania lawmakers should not let this be the last word on the matter.