HARRISBURG — A proposal to raise the bar for the government to take ownership of property it claims is related to crime drew criticism Tuesday from prosecutors, who dubbed the suggested changes to Pennsylvania civil forfeiture practices a “drug dealer’s bill of rights.”
Through civil asset forfeiture, the government can keep property — cash, a vehicle, a home — that it claims was connected to crime. Prosecutors say the system is an important way to take away the tools and profits of drug dealing.
But legislation that would make forfeiture more difficult for law enforcement has drawn support from many corners, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition and the Philadelphia Bar Association.
“Intended as a tool to seize assets of drug cartel members and those making large sums of money in the drug trade, civil asset forfeiture has evolved into a process through which the assets of tens of thousands of individuals have been seized, often without notice and without the property owner or anyone else being convicted of — or even charged with — a crime,” the bar association said in testimony submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, has proposed changing the law so that a person must be convicted of a crime before his or her property could be forfeited. He also is calling for the forfeited assets to be deposited into the state or county’s general fund, rather than left to law enforcement.
“Our whole legal system was based on, from the very beginning, that you’re innocent until proven guilty,” Mr. Folmer told the Senate panel Tuesday. “And that until that guilt is confirmed by a court of law and a jury of your peers, that you have inherent and indefeasible rights of that innocence.”
Prosecutors have been scathing in their criticism, with the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association issuing a statement in which Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman says Mr. Folmer’s bill should be called “The Pennsylvania Drug Dealer Bill of Rights.”
Appearing before the committee Tuesday, Ms. Ferman said there are occasions, which she said are rare, when the forfeiture of assets occurs without a criminal conviction.
“There are times where we cannot meet a criminal burden of proof, but there is significant evidence of criminal activity, and that’s when we use the civil system to obtain a measure of justice,” she said. “It’s more the exception than the rule.”
She said she does not oppose making some changes to the system.
In the 2012-13 fiscal year, Philadelphia led the state in forfeitures, with $3.45 million in cash, 38 real estate properties and 169 vehicles forfeited, according to data submitted by Louis Rulli, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor.
Allegheny was the third county on the list, with $701,623 in cash and 11 vehicles forfeited.
Karen Langley: email@example.com, 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.