Asset forfeiture remains one of the most abused law enforcement practices in the country. While some attempts have been made to rein in this abuse, in most locales, it’s just considered a useful law enforcement tool with minimal downsides.
Pennsylvania has some of the worst asset forfeiture laws in the nation. And it shows. Law enforcement has occasionally been benchslapped by judges for traveling past the wide boundaries granted to it by local legislators. In one case, a judge stopped the state from seizing a grandmother’s house just because her son sold officers $140-worth of marijuana from the residence.
In another case, a judge excoriated officers for stripping a house of everything with possible resale value under the pretense that anything of value in it must have been purchased with drug money.
The Drug Task Force does not seize furniture or clothing, silverware, or other items that have low resale value. They focus upon items that have high resale value. That is not a problem in itself, until the police begin to ignore that there must be a nexus to drug dealing or drug money to seize those higher high value assets. [...] In this case the Drug Task Force personnel ignored the need for such a nexus and engaged in a shopping spree, for the benefit of their budget, based solely on the property’s resale value.
The problems continue in Pennsylvania. Courts stop what they can when they see obvious abuse, but they never see most forfeiture cases because seizures require money and legal talent to challenge, which are things most forfeiture victims don’t have on hand.
Without a lawyer, people stand little chance. Of the 32 cases The Appeal and Spotlight PA reviewed, the state returned cash or property only when a lawyer got involved, according to case records from the Office of the Attorney General. Out of the $608,000 seized and subsequently prosecuted, the attorney general’s office gave back less than $60,000 after negotiating with property owners’ lawyers.
In more than 75% of the cases reviewed, no challenge was raised or the challenge was raised improperly. Both led to the same outcome: the state taking possession of the seized assets.
In some cases, Pennsylvania law enforcement has deemed seized cash to be "guilty" simply because it’s been in circulation. The article cites two studies detailing how much drug residue ends up on cash, which has the possibility of turning innocent people into suspects Pennsylvania cops have no interest in charging criminally. A 2008 study showed 42% of currency had trace amounts of meth on it. A 2009 study said nearly 90% of currency is contaminated with cocaine residue. If Pennsylvania cops can’t find another pretext to seize cash, they’ll test the cash itself for drug residue and go from there.
Out of 11 cases reviewed by The Appeal and Spotlight PA in which no charges were filed, the attorney general’s office justified seizing people’s money after testing the cash for drug residue in 10 of them.
Much of what law enforcement seizes comes from traffic stops. But these stops were so pretextual and bereft of probable cause, roughly a third of all criminal cases arising from traffic stops by drug interdiction officers were thrown out. That hasn’t stopped cops from stopping people and trying to talk them out of their cash. They’ve just become a little more careful and a little less likely to copy-paste non-specific boilerplate like "criminal activity was observed."
But the main point of forfeiture in Pennsylvania is to enrich the agencies participating in it. For all the talk about cracking down on the dangerous drug trade, very few serious criminal charges are tied to forfeitures.
In about one-third of the cases reviewed, police seized cash from people who were never charged with a crime or even issued a traffic ticket. One-quarter of the cases resulted in misdemeanor convictions, and another quarter resulted in felony convictions.
This is how the system works. It has been streamlined for maximum law enforcement efficiency. It serves only the agencies that directly benefit from it. And unless legislators are willing to take on powerful law enforcement interests, it is never going to change.