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.

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  1. But cops need stealthy unmarked cars that look cool and military fatigues so they can scare the shit out of people.

    What are you, a commie?

  2. But cops need stealthy unmarked cars that look cool and military fatigues so they can scare the shit out of people.

    What are you, a commie?

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

    This is unconstitutional. Then end.

    1. This subject is worthy of discussion on the campaign trail.

      Notice how either side will not touch it? That or eminent domain? Or military industrial complex or entitlements or FED?

      Proof enough that all of Washington is the same police state corrupt one party system.

  4. This autta work well. next we could apply this to thieves of all sorts,
    Mr. Hamburgler please list all the items you stole in the previous year.
    Rabble Rabble rabble

  5. A little sad that they have to actually require that. You’d have thought it would’ve been done the whole time. I respect cops for what they do, honestly — but they need to deal with the fucking criminals they have in blue.

  6. How can they, with a straight face, brag about REFORMING an unconstitutional act ??!!???

  7. Unfortunately the audit is probably just going to make sure that the state gets its cut. I’m sure the state legislators saw how much was “confiscated” from their constituents and they were enraged… that they got none of it.

  8. IRS should make them claim their winnings instead.

  9. If I’ve ever supported the idea of a constitutional amendment, I support the idea of one that eliminates civil asset forfeiture.

    1. And yes, I know that the 4th should handle this. But apparently it’s not enough. :p

      1. Ah well, you’re psychic too. Fuck me 🙂

    2. Shouldn’t need it. What’s an amendment going to say, you must be convicted by due process to have your shit seized?

      What next, an amendment saying that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, or that Congress shall pass no law preventing you from speaking or publishing whatever you want?

    3. “No person shall be ….. deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

      Even if you want to argue that “due process” is nothing more than “procedures were followed” regardless of how unfair and unjust those procedures are, there’s still that takings clause. Arguing that the cops can seize guilty property is nothing more than a child’s defense of “I didn’t know it was yours” when he gets caught taking something he shouldn’t have – even if you didn’t know that was my candy bar, you knew damn well it wasn’t yours.

  10. I will never understand how any judge can (in a legal sense) justify civil asset forfeiture under any circumstances, how they can not see it as an obvious violation of due process, the fourth amendment, equal protection, and a zillion other constitutional clauses, let alone “presumed innocent until proven guilty”.

    I perfectly well understand how their warped morals can rationalize it. But I cannot understand whatever legal theory has allowed this to not be knocked down by appeals courts or the Supreme Court.

  11. …but they might soon have to report everything they confiscate.

    Or else what?

  12. Whoa!!
    How can a government entity that has been granted its “authority” steal anything from anybody? What part of “Natural Law” or the Common Law allows for this?
    We The People are under Common Law or “the law” (9th Amendment). It is essentially “do all you have agreed to do (contract law) and do not encroach on other persons or their property” (civil law and tort law)
    First and foremost I would and do question where the authority to make “asset forfeiture” “laws” came from in the first place. The idea that my property is not covered by the 4th Amendment is absurd and blatantly violates the Oath of Office of any and all that use this rules/”law” for the benefit of government or any agency. Violating an Oath is a crime!
    It is wonderful that some of the so called “supreme court” are now recognizing this crime against people that has been pretty popular with police departments for about 20 years now if not longer. They are right on top of it!
    Again, where does this authority come from. When did the States or We The People grant either the Federal Government or the State governments that authority? And, the real question is how can they violate Natural Law with some policy or governmental edict? What is the legal authority?

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