Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Offered in Pennsylvania

Published July 17, 2015

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is considering a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a criminal conviction before seizing private property or cash.

If the bill becomes law, proceeds from seized property would be deposited into the state’s general fund instead of being transferred directly to a police department’s budget.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon), says he wants to help protect due process rights and private property rights.

“My bill says that while law enforcement can take the assets, they can’t do anything with those assets until after there are convictions,” said Folmer. “If they’re not convicted those assets [are returned] without … having to go through the whole rigmarole of hiring an attorney.”

Protecting Rights

Folmer says the bill reforming civil asset forfeiture is not about punishing police officers but protecting constitutional rights.

“I’m not anti-cop,” said Folmer. “I’m for law enforcement, but I am also for the Constitution. I think we need to strike a balance here. If they convict the person, then they can keep it. And if the person is innocent, just give it back to them. I think what has happened is that we’re turning this into a creative way to raise revenues rather than having to raise taxes.”

Marian Williams, a professor at Appalachian State University, says the prevalence of civil asset forfeiture seizures in the United States has increased in the past 40 years.

Proliferation of Forfeitures

“Forfeiture is a longstanding practice,” Williams said. “It has been around for a long time, of course. We saw forfeiture used on the high seas in colonial times, but more recently with the RICO laws in the 1970s and the drug laws in the 1980s we began to see forfeiture more and more.”

Williams says it’s easier to violate constitutional rights in a civil asset forfeiture case than in a normal criminal courtroom.

“The forfeiture proceedings are totally separate, and what we’re seeing is that very few states require an underlying criminal conviction before a seizure and forfeiture will take place,” Williams said. “Because it’s a civil action, you have fewer due process protections and that sort of thing, and so it’s easier for the government and police and federal prosecutors to engage in seizures and forfeitures due to those lower standards and not having to have an underlying criminal conviction.”

Warner Todd Huston ([email protected]) writes from Streamwood, Illinois.

Internet Info

Alexandra D. Rogin, “Dollars for Collars: Civil Asset Forfeiture and the Breakdown of Constitutional Rights,” Drexel Law Review: