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Senate of Pennsylvania
Session of 2015 - 2016 Regular Session


Posted: December 15, 2014 02:02 PM
From: Senator Mike Folmer and Sen. Anthony H. Williams
To: All Senate members
Subject: Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform
In the near future, we will be introducing legislation to carefully regulate the practice of civil asset forfeiture related to violations of the controlled substance act.

Civil forfeiture is a tool for law enforcement to cripple drug cartels by seizing their ill-gotten gains and infrastructure used to support their illicit activities. Recent media coverage has uncovered several cases in Pennsylvania where this well-intentioned law has been misapplied, resulting in questionable property seizures.

Forfeiture of assets such as cash, automobiles and property currently occur as civil proceedings against the property are in question. This allows assets to be seized from property owners regardless of whether they have been convicted of a crime for which forfeiture is a prescribed legal remedy, with a very low burden of proof. In many publicized cases, the property owners themselves are either completely innocent or only tangentially culpable in the drug-related offense.

The resulting system allows property owners to be deprived of their due process, losing homes and other valuables without ever being charged for a crime. According to University of Pennsylvania School of Law professor Louis Rulli, a nationally-recognized expert in civil forfeiture, these actions disproportionately affect low-income minorities.

Because there is no right to counsel in civil action like there is in a criminal matter, indigent claimants must spend a lot of money to hire a lawyer, who must then prove the owner had no knowledge or could not be reasonably expected to have knowledge of the illegal activity in the home. It’s nearly impossible for a homeowner to assert his or her rights to the property because there are very specific affirmative defenses that must be raised to counter government assertions.

According to Philadelphia County’s Asset Forfeiture Reports for 2007 – 2010, the City brought in over $16.8 million from civil forfeitures, of which over $8.5 million were spent on salaries. None of the proceeds were spent on community-based drug and crime fighting programs over the same period.

Our legislation would require a property owner be convicted of a crime before the District Attorney may seize money, conveyances or real property. Additionally, this bill would require all seized cash and the proceeds from the sale of forfeited property to be deposited in the General Fund.

Introduced as SB869