Pennsylvania Cops Are Still Abusing Asset Forfeiture To Help Themselves To People's Cash

from the if-only-the-legislature-gave-a-damn dept

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.

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Filed Under: asset forfeiture, legalized theft, pennsylvania, police


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  • icon
    JustMe (profile), 5 Oct 2020 @ 2:07pm

    I'm confused

    At this point in 2020 I shouldn't be surprised, but I am confused about why legislatures don't address the root of the problem - using the court opinions from their state to bolster their position. We are more than a decade beyond the two studies you cite and there is still no substantive change. Surely we can all agree that taking someone's stuff without just cause is ... just theft, right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 5 Oct 2020 @ 2:16pm

      Re: I'm confused

      Cowardice and corruption. No politician wants to be tarred as 'soft on crime' and police unions would absolutely smear any politician who dared try to take away their source of easy money, and for those that aren't gutless they're corrupt, seeing nothing wrong with stealing from people because (accused) criminals don't have rights and the police are never wrong.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2020 @ 4:32pm

        Re: Re: I'm confused

        The police are wrong.

        I say if the government wants to take your stuff, the easiest thing to do is destroy it. Sure they might put out that fire, or put the pieces back together, but ultimately it will sell for a lot less than they hoped for.

        It's not fair to you, but you were going to lose it anyway. Why let the thieves get the full price for their stolen goods? Give them a bad reputation as black market dealers for damaged product and their revenue stream will dry up. Hit 'em where it hurts the most: Their income.

        Also, to all of those idiots screaming: "But what about them charging you with destruction of evidence?" What about it? That gets you a court date, and a lawyer. something they want to avoid. Sure the first few of you will end up in jail for awhile, but eventually the courts will be forced to deal with the issue of mass destruction and the issue of "government thieves" will get more and more credence. The cops have long given up playing fair, it's time to remind them that two can play that game.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Wyrm (profile), 9 Oct 2020 @ 2:40pm

          Re: Re: Re: I'm confused

          Note about the "destruction of evidence" part... that's actually not a valid concern in most forfeiture cases.
          The police is not holding on your property as evidence (though that is another nuisance they can use), which wouldn't change its ownership. Forfeiture is them taking ownership of a property, to use or resell as they want. They don't even need to start an actual investigation of the "crime" they accuse the property of being part of. So "evidence tampering" or "destruction of evidence" is not the problem.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 6 Oct 2020 @ 1:20am

      Taking things is...theft

      That presumes we're in a state in which the police are governed by actual law. They aren't.

      Laws are for the underclass. So, apparently, is common decency.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 5 Oct 2020 @ 2:24pm

    Stupid criminals go to jail, smart criminals get a badge

    Taking someone's property without finding the owner guilty of a crime and the property related to the crime should be seen as, and legally treated as, no differently than any other form of robbery, and given cops are armed by default that should be upgraded to armed robbery with charges to match.

    As it stands stories like this just further enforce the idea that for far too many cops the only real difference between them and 'regular' organized crime is the badge.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Paul B, 6 Oct 2020 @ 5:59am

      Re: Stupid criminals go to jail, smart criminals get a badge

      In fact this should be theft under color of law. A cop is using his authority to intimidate you into giving him your stuff.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2020 @ 5:02pm

    When they are prosecuting assets, perhaps those assets should be assigned a public defense attorney.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    dickeyrat, 6 Oct 2020 @ 3:20am

    But, But...Blump, his idiot base and all of his enablers say we must "BACK THE BLUE!!" It's just a small part of the pandemic mindset (NOT related to COVID in any way). that cops in Amerika CAN DO NO WRONG!! There are obviously plenty of Amerikans who still clamor for Daddy's approval through all of his abuse, and/or the grinning validation from that abusive Bully, who we all know really has a heart of gold. It's the same mindset that tells hick-town East Texas cops they can gun down an innocent citizen, as long as his skin is Black...or cops barreling about an overgrown hick-town such as Louisville, that they can have fun wiping out an innocent woman in her own bed, even if she's a valued EMT, along with just being innocent (as if that's not enough)--but hey, after all, she was Sleeping While Black. So who are we to say that cops don't have the right to help themselves to anything and everything we allegedly "own"? After all, we must BACK THE BLUE!! Sieg Heil MAGA, everybody!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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