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Pennsylvania’s Forfeiture Laws for Drug Crimes

Pennsylvania’s Forfeiture Laws for Drug Crimes

Pennsylvania has some of the nation’s toughest civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow law enforcement to seize property that is allegedly connected to criminal activity. While these laws were originally aimed at dismantling large-scale drug operations by confiscating ill-gotten gains, their use has expanded over the years, raising concerns among civil liberties advocates.

This article provides an overview of Pennsylvania’s civil asset forfeiture laws, how they are used, criticisms of the practice, recent reform efforts, and what options people have if their property is seized.

What is civil asset forfeiture?

Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property, including cash, cars, homes, and other assets, if they suspect it is connected to criminal activity like drug trafficking. Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture does not require someone to actually be convicted of a crime before their property can be taken.

The legal standard for civil forfeiture is lower than for criminal forfeiture. Prosecutors only need to show there is a preponderance of evidence, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt, that the property was involved in a crime in some way. This had led to concerns that civil forfeiture is an “end run” around constitutional protections.

How civil forfeiture works in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s civil forfeiture laws are among the least restrictive in the country. Law enforcement agencies can seize property for forfeiture based on probable cause it is tied to a violation of the Controlled Substances Act[1]. Typical property seized includes:

  • Cash
  • Vehicles
  • Homes
  • Jewelry
  • Electronics
  • Other valuables

After seizing property, the agency files a petition for forfeiture against the property itself, not its owner. The case proceeds civilly rather than criminally. This means property owners have fewer protections than criminal defendants, such as:

  • No right to an attorney (even if they can’t afford one)
  • Lower standard of proof
  • No presumption of innocence

Many people hit with civil forfeiture are never even charged with a crime. And unlike criminal cases, the burden is on property owners to prove their innocence and that their property is not connected to illegal activity.

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Criticisms of civil forfeiture in Pennsylvania

While civil forfeiture is sold as a way to cripple drug cartels and criminal enterprises, most seizures in Pennsylvania involve relatively small amounts of cash or property from average citizens. Critics argue the relaxed legal standards invite abuse and hurt innocent people.

Some major concerns with Pennsylvania’s forfeiture laws include:

  • Perverse incentive structure – Law enforcement agencies get to keep 100% of proceeds from civil forfeiture to fund their own budgets. This creates a profit motive to seize as much property as possible.[2]
  • Lack of transparency – No public reporting is required on how much agencies seize through forfeiture each year, making oversight difficult.
  • Hurts lawful owners – Renters, relatives, joint owners, and others with a lawful interest in seized property lack protections and can unfairly lose their property or have it held for months or years.
  • Disproportionate impact – Forfeiture laws tend to affect low-income people and communities of color more harshly.
  • Inadequate notice – Many owners do not receive direct notice their property is being forfeited, learning only when collection notices arrive.

While civil forfeiture is often presented as targeting kingpins, a 2020 investigation by The Appeal found the median forfeiture amount in Philadelphia was only $192[3]. Another report found just 9% of forfeitures statewide exceeded $1,000[4]. Critics argue forfeiture should focus on people engaged in serious criminal activity, not minor offenses involving small sums.

Recent reform efforts

Concerns over civil forfeiture abuses have sparked reform efforts in recent years. Several bills have been introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature to increase protections, transparency, and oversight around civil forfeiture, including:

  • Requiring criminal conviction before property can be forfeited
  • Redirecting forfeiture proceeds to the general fund rather than law enforcement budgets
  • Improving notice requirements when property is seized
  • Raising the standard of proof to forfeit property
  • Requiring detailed annual reporting on forfeitures

While these measures have gained some bipartisan support, they have stalled so far in the face of opposition from law enforcement agencies who argue forfeiture is an essential tool for fighting drug trafficking and organized crime.

Some cities like Philadelphia have also implemented their own modest reforms, like requiring prompt hearings for seized property and limiting forfeiture adoption between agencies[5]. But statewide reform remains elusive for now.

What to do if your property is seized

If your property is seized through civil forfeiture, here are some steps to take:

  1. Get a lawyer – Hiring an attorney experienced in forfeiture cases is strongly recommended to protect your rights. Public defenders are not provided for civil cases.
  2. Request a prompt hearing – In some jurisdictions like Philadelphia, prompt hearings are available if requested to challenge the seizure early on.
  3. File a claim – Submit a claim with the seizing agency asserting your interest in the property within the required timeframe, often 30-60 days.
  4. Negotiate return of property – An attorney may be able to negotiate the return of all or some of your property by highlighting weaknesses in the agency’s case.
  5. Challenge forfeiture – You can challenge the forfeiture in court once notified of the proceedings. The burden will be on you to prove your innocence.

Even if successful, the process often takes months and legal fees can exceed the value of the seized property. Some owners make the difficult choice not to challenge forfeitures because of the time and costs involved. But not contesting the forfeiture means the agency gets to keep your property permanently.

The path forward

Civil asset forfeiture remains a controversial law enforcement tool in Pennsylvania. While supporters believe it is necessary to disrupt drug trafficking and associated crimes, critics argue the relaxed legal standards invite abuse and unfairly impact everyday citizens not charged with any crime.

Recent reform efforts have aimed to increase protections for property owners and limit the financial incentive for aggressive use of forfeiture. But major changes remain elusive for now. In the meantime, Pennsylvanians ensnared by civil forfeiture laws have few options other than hiring a lawyer and challenging the seizure in court – a daunting and expensive process.

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