In a New Survey, Victims of Philadelphia’s Forfeiture Racket Highlight the Hazards of Giving Cops a License To Steal
After “they came in,” Robert recalled, “they made me go down to the basement,” “put a gun to the back of my head,” and “said ‘open the safe.'” When Robert did not do so immediately, one of the men “poked me with the gun and said, ‘open the safe,’ then hit my head against the frame of the door,” Robert reported. “I really thought they were going to shoot me.”
That sounds like a robbery, because it was: Once the safe was open, the armed intruders, who were Philadelphia cops, took Robert’s legally registered gun. But that theft was perfectly legal under Pennsylvania law, which allows police and prosecutors to seize property they allege is connected to criminal activity, keep it unless the owner mounts a successful legal challenge, and use the proceeds to augment their budgets.
“Robert” is the pseudonym of a man who was caught up in Philadelphia’s notorious civil forfeiture program, which ended in 2018 as a result of a 2014 class action lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice (I.J.). The organization, which frequently represents forfeiture victims, recently surveyed 407 of the 30,000 people whose property was seized under Philadelphia’s program. The results, summarized in a new report by I.J.’s Jennifer McDonald and Dick Carpenter, underline several glaring problems with civil forfeiture, which effectively gives law enforcement agencies a license to steal.
Policing for Profit
Under Pennsylvania law and the laws of most other states, police can seize property based on “probable cause,” which in practice may amount to nothing more than a bare allegation that it was somehow involved in criminal activity. When they seize cash, for example, cops often use boilerplate language vaguely suggesting that the money either came from the sale of illegal drugs or was intended to purchase them. Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies can keep 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds, which gives them a strong incentive to target people who are unlikely to fight back effectively.
Petty Seizures Predominate
In the I.J. survey, the median value of seized items, which included cash, cars, and other personal property, was just $600. More than two-thirds of seized items were valued at $1,800 or less. The median value of all property seized in a single case was $1,370.
Cash seizures, which happened in nearly two-thirds of the cases included in the survey, involved amounts as low as $25. The cops even took “a cologne gift set worth $20” and a pair of crutches. Such petty greed is par for the course with civil forfeiture, which in other states has led police to seize small sums of cash and decidedly nonluxurious possessions such as cellphones, ladders, weed cutters, leaf blowers, soccer equipment, and children’s car seats.
The details of Philadelphia’s seizures, which are similar to the results of prior research in other jurisdictions, show how absurd it is to maintain that civil forfeiture is primarily about confiscating the ill-gotten profits of drug “kingpins” or other big-time criminals. The I.J. survey indicates that forfeiture cases in Philadelphia generally involved people who either were entirely innocent or had committed minor offenses such as drug possession or traffic violations.
Challenging a Forfeiture Is Difficult and Expensive
In three-quarters of the cases covered by the survey, owners were either never arrested, never charged, or never convicted. Yet while most of the respondents (72 percent) tried to recover their property, only 43 percent of them succeeded. Overall, I.J. reports, “more than two-thirds (69%) of all Philadelphia forfeiture victims never got their property back.”
Defenders of this system argue that failing to challenge a forfeiture is an implicit admission
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