A fight is brewing in Pennsylvania over laws allowing authorities to confiscate property without filing criminal charges.
Civil forfeiture is not a well-known process, even though the Supreme Court recently ruled against Indiana’s plan to confiscate a $40,000 Land Rover for a minor drug offense.
The Institute for Justice announced it is teaming up with a newspaper in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to try to expose the government benefit.
“Pennsylvanians deserve an opportunity to shed some light on civil forfeiture,” said IJ attorney Kirby West in an announcement about the campaign. “Law enforcement in Pennsylvania is allowed to take property, even when there are no criminal charges, and spend the proceeds on virtually anything they want. The Right to Know Law exists to hold government officials accountable.”
The group has begun working with reporter Carter Walker and the LNP Media Group to “fight the district attorney in court and bring this information into the light of day. The case could determine whether district attorneys across the commonwealth have to make information about their forfeiture proceeds available to the public.”
The Lancaster County district attorney “uses civil forfeiture to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and other property each year.”
“Under Pennsylvania law, he is able to spend the proceeds with few restrictions,” IJ said.
But the relevant records are secret.
A formal request for civil forfeiture records by the reporter was rejected by the DA. When the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records concluded that the records were subject to the Commonwealth’s Right to Know Law, the DA went to court to keep them secret.
Forfeiture laws frequently allow police to make seizures without a criminal conviction and sometimes not even charges against the owner.
“Public records are a critical tool in providing our readers with information about how government works,” Walker explained. “I’m happy the Institute for Justice has decided to take this case, which involves hundreds of thousands of dollars in government assets spent yearly with minimal information being released to the public.”
IJ said its own analysis of forfeiture transparency laws across the country shows information is difficult to obtain.
“The only forfeiture information made available to the public comes in the form of annual reports from the Commonwealth Attorney General’s office – and even those cannot be viewed without a RTKL request,” the group said.
“These reports provide only basic, topline accounts about what property county district attorneys are forfeiting and total amounts of proceeds spent. In other states, law enforcement has spent forfeiture proceeds on everything from margarita machines, to a zamboni, and sometimes even high-end travel to luxury destinations.”
IJ senior research analyst Jennifer McDonald said that at a minimum, agencies should have to release information to the public.
IJ recently settled a lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia over its practice of “taking cash, cars and even homes from residents without charging them with crimes.”
WND reported in 2016 a law adopted in Ohio requires that criminal charges be filed before police try to confiscate assets.
The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank, said at the time that Ohio was joining a growing number of states – including California, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming – in protecting taxpayers’ due-process and property rights.
At least 17 states already have adopted procedures to put the brakes on such seizures.
“Reducing perverse economic incentives, the new law prohibits local governments from using the U.S. Department of Justice’s ‘equitable sharing’ program as a loophole to bypass constitutional protections on property rights in most cases, while still allowing government law enforcement agents to perform their duties and protect people,” said Jesse Hathaway, a research fellow and budget/tax expert at the institute.
“Government law enforcement should not be financially motivated, but motivated by a desire to protect and serve taxpayers. Civil asset forfeiture creates an economic incentive to engage in the forfeiture process, perverting the law. This measure reduces that incentive to do wrong and will help protect against the possibility of abuse,” Hathaway said.
“This is a step toward removing the profitability of violating an individual’s inherent property rights, and lawmakers in other states should look to Ohio for ideas on how to solve the civil asset forfeiture problem in their communities,” he said.
When police confiscate property, the victim usually must go to court to prove innocence to regain control.
In any case, the victim must pay the costs of the lawyers and court fees themselves, just to reclaim their own property.