Do you look like a drug user? You may not think you look like someone who would carry, buy or sell illegal drugs, but if Pennsylvania’s police think you do, they might take your money. They could take your car. They might not even charge you, but they could still keep your assets. This is civil asset forfeiture.
Pennsylvania state law allows officials to seize cash, cars and other property they feel may be associated with illegal activities. The goal is to seize the money made off illegal activities so that the criminals do not prosper, or to prevent buyers from making deals for kilos of heroin. But the law offers property owners very few protections, and cops sometimes seize assets from innocent people.
How civil asset forfeiture can go wrong
WHYY recently reported on a case of civil asset forfeiture in Berks County. During a sting, the police arrested a couple of men and seized several bags of heroin, approximately $5,000 in cash and the SUV in which the men had been sitting. The problem was that the vehicle didn’t belong to either of the men. The owner was more than 200 miles away and unaware that her vehicle was being used in a drug deal.
Unfortunately for this woman, civil asset forfeiture laws don’t come with the same constitutional protections you would expect with a criminal case. Instead:
- Prosecutors charge the property, not the owner
- The owner doesn’t have the right to a court-appointed defender
- The burden of proof lies with the owner, not the prosecution
- Owners have a limited time to file to have their property returned
Because the cost of attending a hearing might sometimes rival the value of a smaller forfeiture, innocent owners sometimes decide not to fight for their property. In these cases, the police and district attorneys get to keep the property and use it at their discretion. People in Lancaster County were recently angered to learn, for instance, that the DA had used forfeited goods to lease an SUV for personal use.
How to protect yourself from civil asset forfeiture
There are defenses for people who choose to fight against civil asset forfeiture. This is especially important when you consider that Pennsylvanians have lost their vehicles and houses to past forfeitures. Typically, these defenses come in three varieties:
- Innocent owner defense: If you can prove that you owned the property and were unaware it had any connection to illegal activities, you may be able to win it back.
- Proportionality defense: If your property was worth far more than the standard fine for the crime in question, you may have a defense under the Eighth Amendment.
- Illegal search and seizure: An attorney may be able to show that the police violated your Fourth Amendment rights during their seizure of your property.
Because of the time limitations involved, lawyers often say you should act right away. The sooner you approach a lawyer about your case, the more time the lawyer will have to gather evidence.
The problem is spreading out from Philadelphia
WHYY reports that Philadelphia used to conduct 40% of all the state’s civil forfeitures. But after public backlash, that number dropped. Now it’s down to 10%, and the bulk of civil asset forfeiture has moved to Philadelphia’s suburbs and the eight surrounding counties. This means people in Doylestown and the surrounding area may now find themselves at the center of one of the shadiest practices in law enforcement. Be careful to whom you lend your vehicle and know your rights.