Philly sued over $6-million civil asset forfeiture habit

posted at 9:21 pm on August 12, 2014 by Mary Katharine Ham

It’s a stultifying name for a frequently abused tool in law enforcement’s arsenal. Civil asset forfeiture is the name for the state’s ability to take your stuff if they suspect it’s been used in the commission of the crime. The problem is your stuff isn’t presumed innocent, and therefore getting it back can be a nightmare from which law-abiding citizens emerge stuff-less.

The Institute for Justice, my favorite law firm for economic liberty, is suing the city of Philadelphia over its takings of property from thousands of citizens. The civil forfeiture apparatus in Philadelphia racks up $6 million a year, according to IJ. Here’s how:

The plaintiffs in these Philadelphia cases have never even been charged with a crime, and under the forfeiture system, may never even see a judge before their property is taken from them:

The named plaintiffs are three Philadelphia residents who stand to lose their houses as a result of civil forfeiture actions by D.A., even though none of them has been charged with any crime. The District Attorney’s office regularly engages in the practice on the premise that the houses have been used as “instruments” of a crime (usually drug-dealing, usually by a relative).

The complaint does not go into specifics about what criminal activity the D.A. alleges took place in the houses involved, but emphasizes the impact of losing the houses would have on their owners. (One Plaintiff, Doila Welch, for example, shares her house with her siblings, including a cognitively disabled sibling, and their children. Welch, herself, suffers from mobility problems.)

Sen. Rand Paul put forth a forfeiture reform law in July to address such abuses as a part of his suite of criminal justice reform ideas. First, a description of the FAIR Act from Paul’s office:

The FAIR Act would change federal law and protect the rights of property owners by requiring that the government prove its case with clear and convincing evidence before forfeiting seized property. State law enforcement agencies will have to abide by state law when forfeiting seized property. Finally, the legislation would remove the profit incentive for forfeiture by redirecting forfeitures assets from the Attorney General’s Asset Forfeiture Fund to the Treasury’s General Fund.

“The federal government has made it far too easy for government agencies to take and profit from the property of those who have not been convicted of a crime. The FAIR Act will ensure that government agencies no longer profit from taking the property of U.S. citizens without due process, while maintaining the ability of courts to order the surrender of proceeds of crime,” Sen. Paul said


And, Radley Balko’s take:

The bill would also require states “to abide by state law when forfeiting seized property.” This is important. Currently, a number of state legislatures across the country have passed reform bills to rein in forfeiture abuses. The problem is that the federal government has a program known as “adoption” or “equitable sharing.” Under the program, a local police agency need only call up the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or similar federal agency. That agency then “federalizes” the investigation, making it subject to federal law. The federal agency then initiates forfeiture proceedings under the laxer federal guidelines for forfeiture. The feds take a cut and then return the rest — as much as 80 percent — back to the local agency.

As with many government functions, this one has a place and a rightful use, but its potential for abuse is great. Often, the proceeds from forfeitures go directly back to the agencies who did the seizing, so you can imagine the incentives and how well they’re resisted.


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First?

BigAlSouth on August 12, 2014 at 9:39 PM

Look. If the state knew you were innocent, they wouldn’t take your sh!t.

BigAlSouth on August 12, 2014 at 9:41 PM

Like most government powers, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

myiq2xu on August 12, 2014 at 9:44 PM

Good. I can’t believe this bullcrap has held up in court.

forest on August 12, 2014 at 9:46 PM

I think Hot Air has also posted about the states that seize any cash an out of state driver might have claiming that it could be drug money. This forces the driver to fight to get it back. People responsible for such policies need to get their due justice.

corkie on August 12, 2014 at 9:55 PM

“You’re a bad person, so the government gets your stuff”.

Useful law for a dictatorship; not so much for a republic.

Dolce Far Niente on August 12, 2014 at 9:58 PM

O/T RIP Lauren Bacall.

Classy lady and one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. Was married to Humphrey Bogart until death did they part.

ConstantineXI on August 12, 2014 at 9:42 PM

Oh man, geeez we lost another great one! They don’t make actresses like that any more, I loved all her and Boggie’s movies together. She was a class act.
Dang,they say famous deaths come in threes. .?? Next??

Bakokitty on August 12, 2014 at 10:01 PM

The problem is that the federal government has a program known as “adoption” or “equitable sharing.” Under the program, a local police agency need only call up the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or similar federal agency. That agency then “federalizes” the investigation, making it subject to federal law. The federal agency then initiates forfeiture proceedings under the laxer federal guidelines for forfeiture. The feds take a cut and then return the rest — as much as 80 percent — back to the local agency.

And that’s just one reason why local police are becoming more and more militarized – heavy duty firepower helps to make for some heavy duty plundering.

whatcat on August 12, 2014 at 10:03 PM

I say, fine, take people’s cars and houses and money, but that money should go to charity, not to the police departments involved. Watch how quickly the police stop doing that.

anotherJoe on August 12, 2014 at 10:07 PM

Look. If the state knew you were innocent, they wouldn’t take your sh!t.

BigAlSouth on August 12, 2014 at 9:41 PM

What kind of a stupid statement is this?

307wolverine on August 12, 2014 at 10:08 PM

It is easy to see how they’ll keep feeding the beast when those evil Republicans lower taxes.

bettycooper on August 12, 2014 at 10:09 PM

Well Philly’s bloated public sector unions and bloated payoffs to union cronies has bankrupted the city. In other news, water announces it is still wet.

Raquel Pinkbullet on August 12, 2014 at 10:12 PM

I’m reminded of the episode of Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy where he went to the War Room in the Pentagon and declared war on Macon, GA for serving him grits that “weren’t right.”

Can’t we just declare war on Philly and bomb them to smithereens? When not a single person in that town voted for Mitt, they proved they’re beyond worthless.

UnstChem on August 12, 2014 at 10:23 PM

Good luck with this; outrageous civil forfeitures have been going on for thirty years. Every six months or so someone writes a nice article, or some congressman drafts a bill, and it goes nowhere because the practice is just too lucrative for all parties involved.

It demonstrates that government indeed can be “greedy” just as individuals can be.

slickwillie2001 on August 12, 2014 at 10:34 PM

Can’t we just declare war on Philly and bomb them to smithereens? When not a single person in that town voted for Mitt, they proved they’re beyond worthless.

UnstChem on August 12, 2014 at 10:23 PM

Good Lord, no! Are you insane?
Cheesesteaks.
Some things transcend politics, government goonery and the like.

justltl on August 12, 2014 at 11:18 PM

It’s a complete racket. I firmly believe that drug dealers are allowed to accumulate wealth before law enforcement bothers to take them off the street. They aren’t even doing it for punishment. If you owe money on the property, they let you have that. They want the easy money. This effectively incentivizes law enforcement to look the other way.

MechanicalBill on August 12, 2014 at 11:26 PM

Good Lord, no! Are you insane?
Cheesesteaks.
Some things transcend politics, government goonery and the like.

justltl on August 12, 2014 at 11:18 PM

What one sees as insane, another sees as pragmatic. If we save the Liberty Bell first, then can we do it? Pretty please?

Oh by the way, everything is politics these days even if it didn’t start out that way.

UnstChem on August 12, 2014 at 11:35 PM

It is easy to see how they’ll keep feeding the beast when those evil Republicans lower taxes.
bettycooper on August 12, 2014 at 10:09 PM

Sarc tag?

Anyone?

Newtie and the Beauty on August 13, 2014 at 12:15 AM

Cheesesteaks.
Some things transcend politics, government goonery and the like.

justltl on August 12, 2014 at 11:18 PM

Philly is the home of the cheesesteak. It can be made elsewhere.

gryphon202 on August 13, 2014 at 12:22 AM

Hope the lawsuit wins big. Seizure of property that doesn’t belong to you is theft, even when it’s done by the government.

There Goes the Neighborhood on August 13, 2014 at 2:40 AM

When not a single person in that town voted for Mitt, they proved they’re beyond worthless.

UnstChem on August 12, 2014 at 10:23 PM

I know multiple people in Philly who voted for Mitt. If the city didn’t record those votes, don’t blame the voters, blame the corrupt bureaucracy!

Cheshire_Kat on August 13, 2014 at 6:22 AM

Just another of the consequences when you have knee jerk legislation that is overreaching and draconian. Innocent victims at the hands of the state.

jake49 on August 13, 2014 at 7:39 AM

As with many government functions, this one has a place and a rightful use…

NO, actually it does not. You should NEVER, EVER, EVER be deprived of your property without due process. Civil asset forfeiture is many things, performed with due process is not one of them.

If you think someone’s house was obtained illegally using money obtained illegally, by all means prove your case before a jury of their peers and when they find that person guilty, seize that property to your heart’s content. Absent that process, the gov’t should not be able to take a damn thing from anyone.

deadrody on August 13, 2014 at 7:46 AM

Look. If the state knew you were innocent, they wouldn’t take your sh!t.

BigAlSouth on August 12, 2014 at 9:41 PM

What kind of a stupid statement is this?

307wolverine on August 12, 2014 at 10:08 PM

I believe the word you are looking for is EPIC. That is EPIC stupidity on display there.

deadrody on August 13, 2014 at 7:48 AM

What one sees as insane, another sees as pragmatic. If we save the Liberty Bell first, then can we do it? Pretty please?

UnstChem on August 12, 2014 at 11:35 PM

OK, OK.
Anything north of Market, south of Oregon Ave. and west of the Schuylkill – bombs away.
Dump any leftover ordnance on Camden – no one will notice.
You drive a hard bargain.

Philly is the home of the cheesesteak. It can be made elsewhere.

gryphon202 on August 13, 2014 at 12:22 AM

They just don’t taste the same. :(

justltl on August 13, 2014 at 8:34 AM

Philadelphia police are notoriously corrupt too.

I have a cousin who worked for a large software development company at satellite office in Phili. He was given a deadline that was not possible to meet without working tons of overtime. In order to get the work done while still helping his wife (7 months pregnant with their first child), he took his laptop home at night. Which is against company policy, but software development firms typically break policies like that if it lets them meet a deadline.

He brought the laptop back the next morning when he went in to work, and the police were waiting for him. The contracted company security had seen him and instead of talking to his boss had informed the police that he had “stolen” a company laptop.

The police took him to the station where he explained the situation, thinking that would resolve the misunderstanding. They asked him to sign a statement that he had taken the laptop home for work purposes, and had brought it back the next morning. He did so, since it was true, and he thought that would resolve the situation.

He was then threatened by the district attorney with a felony charge of grand theft unless he plead guilty to a misdemeanor. At this point he got a lawyer who contacted his boss who called the district attorney to ask them not to press charges. Since my cousin was balking at the plea deal, (“but I didn’t steal anything”) the district attorney charged him with the felony.

At this point corporate headquarters got involved and implemented company policy of immediate termination without appeal (over the objections of his local boss).

His lawyer informed him that since he had signed a “confession” that he had taken the laptop had a chance of being convicted. A “friendly” judge talked to the district attorney and convinced the DA to offer my cousin a plea deal with no admittance of guilt and no prison time, just a large fine. Terrified he was going to be sent to prison for years, leaving his pregnant wife without anyone to support, and already blocked from moving or finding any employment until this was resolved, he accepted the deal.

He later learned that the fine went almost entirely to the police department that made the arrest, and that they kicked back a “finders fee” to the security company.

The whole thing was a racket to make money for the police.

He moved back home to Texas, where those kind of shenanigans are not tolerated by a free people.

Sackett on August 13, 2014 at 8:53 AM

It also changed him from an apolitical independent to a rock ribbed Republican.

Sackett on August 13, 2014 at 8:55 AM

Dang,they say famous deaths come in threes. .?? Next??

Bakokitty on August 12, 2014 at 10:01 PM

Justin Beiber? Please???

Nutstuyu on August 13, 2014 at 9:00 AM

Look. If the state knew you were innocent, they wouldn’t take your sh!t.
BigAlSouth on August 12, 2014 at 9:41 PM

Holy crap, NO. This is so far beyond stupid…

I work for the IRS (shaddup). For us to take your house for, say, not reporting your income, we have to:

A) Propose the assessment. We have to contact you three times, the third by certified mail.
B) Let you contest the proposal (That distribution was a rollover! I didn’t make any money from that contract work after expenses! Some illegal is working under my name!)
C) Assess the tax.
D) Reconsider in light of any new information you produce after the fact.
E) Let you appeal through our internal Appeals Office.
F) Let you sue us in Tax Court.
G) Let you sue us in District Court.
H) Sue you to take the home, while proving that it will not physically harm you. Grandma on SSA isn’t getting kicked out of her home, unless she has a million dollar home and there’ll be enough left over to let her downsize.

Versus… “You have no recourse. Give.”

…. Yeah.

My opinions are my own, disclaimer crap since I brought up my job.

Asurea on August 13, 2014 at 9:57 AM

Oh, forgot to mention that there’s actually a dollar threshold below which we can’t take your home short of getting a proper criminal conviction. Under that, it’s wage garnishments and bank levies only, and even there, you can get us to back off if it’s going to put you out of your home. And all of this only happens if you refuse to make any effort to pay what is owed.

Asurea on August 13, 2014 at 10:05 AM

This abuse of power (which violates the due-process principles of the US Constitution in my opinion) has been around for a long time. It might be nice to blame Obama for this among his other Constitution-bashing abuses, but this one predates his administration.

I hope Philly loses bad, and gets a huge punitive judgment as well.

Government officials have the duty to uphold the law, and the Constitution is the basis of all US law. As I see it those officials are fundamentally corrupt and engage in criminal behavior toward those they oppress with this official abuse. I’d like to see criminal charges against some of these officials, but of course the claim will be that they didn’t break any laws.

If no government prosecutor has the gumption to go after them, then maybe a few torch-and-pitchfork carrying vigilante mobs against the worst of them would give the next one pause before deciding to abuse official power.

s1im on August 13, 2014 at 10:15 AM

First, make the People powerless through confiscatory tax practices and regulation of every aspect of their existence. Then, militarize all police forces and skew their numbers ever upward. Once the People have been cowed via making them broke and intimidated by ‘law enforcement’, create laws that confiscate their homes and vehicles, essentially forcing them even more onto the public dole. Win-win for libs and fascists.

vnvet on August 13, 2014 at 10:39 AM

First, a description of the FAIR Act from Paul’s office

Great idea. Could we make it apply to the IRS as well?? They’re notorious for unjustified seizures.

oldleprechaun on August 13, 2014 at 10:49 AM

NO, actually it does not. You should NEVER, EVER, EVER be deprived of your property without due process. Civil asset forfeiture is many things, performed with due process is not one of them.

deadrody on August 13, 2014 at 7:46 AM

Originally, asset forfeiture was a way of keeping someone from hiding their assets while everyone awaited due process. That’s not a wholly bad idea. The problem is it went well beyond that in quick order – and almost immediately overstepped the 4th Amendment. Unfortunately, courts have seldom seen it that way.

GWB on August 13, 2014 at 11:17 AM

but of course the claim will be that they didn’t break any laws.

s1im on August 13, 2014 at 10:15 AM

Or that imperial regal sovereign immunity applies.

GWB on August 13, 2014 at 11:19 AM

I think if the assets would be required to go to the opposite political party to that who is in charge, then the abuse would disappear.

RSbrewer on August 13, 2014 at 11:32 AM

As with manymost government functions, this one has ano place and aor rightful use, butand its potential for abuse is great. Often, the proceeds from forfeitures go directly back to the agencies who did the seizing, so you can imagine the incentives and how well they’re resisted.

Fixed.

earlgrey on August 13, 2014 at 11:55 AM

This law super cedes the supremacy clause of the Constitution… That means there had to be collusion between Congress, the President and the Courts for this law to be passed, signed into law and to stand in the courts as enforceable. That… Is the perfect definition of tyranny.

No political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value, or is stamped with the authority of more enlightened patrons of liberty than that on which the objection is founded. The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.
James Madison, Federalist No. 48, February 1, 1788

I liked it when we were the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave!

It’s a crying shame that ALL government employees are now abusing their oath of office and trampling the Constitution, our liberty and our freedom. Both parties voted in favor of the Patriot Act and the NDAA. Those 2 laws are a direct assault on our Constitutional Republic and the Constitution.

wartface on August 13, 2014 at 1:00 PM

Another scam in major use in small town is to target out of state cars. They stop and search them and if the car owner has too much money on him they proclaim his money as ill gotten, issue him a summons, then give him the opportunity to plead guilty and not have to return…Oh, and they steal and sell the car as well.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/08/12/taken

Anti-American, unconstitutional in your face thieving by government.

JIMV on August 13, 2014 at 4:00 PM

Great idea. Could we make it apply to the IRS as well?? They’re notorious for unjustified seizures.
oldleprechaun on August 13, 2014 at 10:49 AM

Reform Act of ’98 put an end to that.

Asurea on August 13, 2014 at 11:27 PM

What is it that one cannot understand about “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law”?

Esaus Message on August 14, 2014 at 1:54 PM