Philadelphia’s Perverse Civil Asset Forfeiture Machine Has Finally Come to An End

By Brittany Hunter

Philadelphia may be the birthplace of our Constitution, but its civil asset forfeiture program is anything but constitutional. The program has become so corrupt and far-reaching it is often referred to as a “perverse machine.” Luckily, after a four-year legal battle brought by the nonprofit law firm the Institute for Justice (IJ), the city has agreed to a settlement that will give its abusive forfeiture program a major overhaul and protect the rights of Philadelphia property owners.

In Philadelphia alone, 25,000 people have been victimized by the practice of asset forfeiture. Property confiscated by law enforcement includes 1,200 homes, 3,500 vehicles, and $50 million from residents. And the majority of these property owners were never actually convicted of a crime. But now, due to the diligent efforts of IJ, many of these individuals will finally see justice served.

Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at IJ and director of its Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse, commented:

For too long, Philadelphia treated its citizens like ATMs, ensnaring thousands of people in a system designed to strip people of their property and their rights. No more. Today’s groundbreaking agreement will end years of abuse and create a fund to compensate innocent owners.

Civil asset forfeiture has been a hot-button issue over the last several years since it is one of the few criminal justice reform issues that receive attention from both the right and left. Given how polarized our country is at the moment, this bipartisanship should speak volumes to how corrupt the practice truly is. Asset forfeiture is a tool used by law enforcement that allows them to seize property from those suspected of criminal activity. However, no actual criminal conviction is required, which makes this practice ripe for abuse.

Due process laws are supposed to protect us from this type of behavior. They require the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that we are guilty of committing a crime before legal consequences can be assigned. However, with the escalation of the War on Drugs in the 1980s, law enforcement agencies across the country adopted “take first, ask questions later” policies. As a result, anyone suspected of a drug crime is vulnerable, particularly the poor.

The practice has received the nickname “policing for profit” because law enforcement officers are actually incentivized to seize property since they get a cut of whatever is confiscated. But the incentives don’t stop there. In addition to officer kickbacks, both the prosecutors and the law enforcement agency overseeing the seizure are allowed to sell whatever property is taken and use the funds, making this an exceptionally lucrative practice, especially in Philadelphia where civil asset forfeiture was rampant. Philadelphia brings in more revenue from this practice than Los Angeles and Brooklyn combined. It was even discovered that 35 percent of the money “earned” from asset forfeiture was going to beef up the salaries of prosecutors and law enforcement personnel.

But the corruption does not stop there. Once your property is seized, getting it back is often extremely difficult, and the burden of proof lies on the individuals. In Philadelphia specifically, the courtroom where civil asset forfeiture hearings were held was run by the same prosecutors who were profiting from the cases. And most concerning of all, there were no judges present in the now infamous “Courtroom 478,” the room where each asset forfeiture hearing took place. And since many of these victims have not been charged with a crime, the hearing process is not allowed the same protections as a criminal case, meaning many victims have no legal counsel.

In some cases, victims have been asked to come back to court 10 times. If one of these hearings were missed, the property would be promptly sold and the money divided among those responsible for the seizure in the first place. Philadelphia also provided its officers with “cookie cutter” forms that allowed them to process civil asset forfeiture cases as quickly as possible without being burdened by excessive paperwork. Often times, victims were not even given the opportunity to contest what happened before they were summoned to a hearing. Even more appalling, at times it was abundantly clear that victims had not committed a crime.

On the Philadelphia block where Maleny Vazquez resides, the police have seized more homes than in the entire state of Pennsylvania. In fact, from 2011 to 2015, law enforcement seized one-quarter of the homes on her street.

Each was the result of civil asset forfeiture. Vazquez herself has never been the victim of civil asset forfeiture, but after living on this street for decades, she grew accustomed to seeing her neighbors escorted out of their homes in handcuffs and put into the back of cop cars. She also knew it wouldn’t be long before the homes were auctioned off and the money put back in the coffers of the police. But she had never heard the term civil asset forfeiture before—she just knew that once the homes were taken, it didn’t end well for the homeowners.

Her neighborhood rests near an abandoned rail line that unfortunately became a haven for opiate use and drug deals in the 1980s. This block became an easy target for law enforcement as they knew drug use was prevalent and that the residents could not afford access to legal representation. As a result, this neighborhood has seen routine abuse from law enforcement for decades.

One of Vazquez’s neighbors, Norys Hernandez, nearly lost her home when her nephew was picked up on drug dealing charges. While the nephew did not actually own the home, the police still tried to use asset forfeiture to seize the house and auction it off for a profit after the young man was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside of it. In this country, we pride ourselves on the punishment fitting the crime, but seizing an entire home over $40 worth of drugs is most certainly an abuse of power. Yet Hernandez was not alone in her situation.

Four other plaintiffs who joined Hernandez in a $3 million class action suit were targeted by officers because of relatives who were suspected of dealing drugs on their property. However, the homeowners themselves were never accused of anything. But because of perverse practices like this, Philadelphia law enforcement was able to bring in an estimated $6 million annually, leaving innocent homeowners stripped of their property with little legal recourse. Instead of protecting the communities they are supposed to be serving, civil asset forfeiture ripped apart the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Thanks to IJ, this will never be allowed to happen again.

Under the new settlement reached by IJ, the city of Philadelphia, the District Attorney, and the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, the current civil asset forfeiture program is hereby dismantled. Any money received from any forthcoming forfeiture programs will be given to local communities to help with drug prevention and treatment programs—removing the profit incentive. Additionally, there is now a consent decree, which Sheth says “will take all existing forfeiture revenues and establish a $3 million fund to enable innocent property owners to reclaim every dollar seized from them under the city’s unconstitutional scheme.”

This is a huge win for Philadelphia, but when it comes to civil asset forfeiture reform, the country is just getting started. The Supreme Court recently heard the case of Timbs v. Indiana, which is centered on the constitutionality of civil asset forfeiture. The ruling will soon be handed down, but as of now, it’s not looking good for law enforcement. When two ideologically opposed justices, Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor, are both equally appalled by this practice, you know something is wrong.

Commenting on civil asset forfeiture, Sotomayor said, “If we look at these forfeitures that are occurring today, many of them seem grossly disproportionate to the crimes being charged.”

The case is still pending, but given IJ’s landmark victory, the odds seem to be in favor of justice, not just in Timbs v. Indiana but for the entire country. And after this decades-long train of abuses, law enforcement’s days of legalized theft appear to be coming to an end.

Brittany is a senior writer for the Foundation for Economic Education, where this article first appeared. Additionally, she is a co-host of Beltway Banthas, a podcast that combines Star Wars and politics. Brittany believes that the most effective way to promote individual liberty and free-market economics is by telling timely stories that highlight timeless principles.

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