A bill designed to reform controversial civil forfeiture programs in Pennsylvania has been gutted, according to proponents of the original legislation.

“The bill is now much, much weaker,” said state Sen. Daylin Leach (D-17), one of the original sponsors of SB-869. “The District Attorneys Association” of Pennsylvania “fought hard against the original bill for obvious reasons: They want the money.”

District attorneys frequently petition courts to seize property tied to criminal investigations, a process known as civil asset forfeiture. Proponents say the program gets items like cash or cars out of the hands of criminals like drug dealers while helping fund additional law enforcement efforts. 

But critics say loose forfeiture regulations have resulted in innocent individuals’ property being liquidated by the state through an opaque budgetary process.

“Civil asset forfeiture is fundamentally unfair,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It lets the government take small amounts of cash, vehicles and even homes from innocent people who don’t have lawyers to defend them in court. In Pennsylvania, forfeiture has been abused to target poor people and people of color.”

Philadelphia, in particular, has been the subject of several forfeiture scandals. 

The Philadelphia City Paper initially chronicled instances in which individuals that had merely been suspected of criminal activity had lost cash and other assets to the local DA. Other investigations found cars and homes owned by individuals with incidental connections to drug investigations seized by local law enforcement. The city collects some $6 million annually through these confiscations, with the money being split between the police department and the DA.

Last year, state Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D-6) and state Sen. Mike Folmer (R-48) partnered on a bill that would have required a criminal conviction in advance of any forfeiture proceedings and required proceeds to be routed through a county’s general fund, instead of going directly to law enforcement agencies. Critics, like the ACLU, have said that allowing the DA and police to manage these seized funds created an incentive for excessive forfeiture claims.

“We want to see a criminal conviction for the person who is the property owner before forfeiture,” said Leach. “This is the only area of law where the state gets to avail itself of revenue without having to prove anything.”
Leach and other senators later co-sponsored the legislation. But that bill was amended in committee last month, eliminating both of these core changes. Reform advocates were outraged.

“The language of this bill does not reform asset forfeiture in any real way,” said Shuford. “The only people who benefit from this bill are the prosecutors who will be able to continue to generate millions of dollars through forfeiture.”

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association said it supports the amended version of the bill, noting that it still requires prosecutors to provide more evidence ahead of forfeiture proceedings.

“The way the bill currently is,” said the association’s Richard Long, "strikes the right balance between protecting individuals and punishing criminals. There are times when money or assets are part of a criminal enterprise and, for whatever reason, the individual ends up not being prosecuted or is not convicted. But there was still money or property that was part of criminal activity.”

Long also said that to turn forfeiture funds over to counties or municipalities would deprive law enforcement of funding.

“By keeping it for law enforcement efforts, forfeiture provides law enforcement with critical means to further combat crime,” he said, adding that counties "have broader interests. There’s the potential that it will be utilized in areas outside of combating crime.”

Long also said the new bill will improve auditing and reporting standards showing where asset forfeiture money comes from and what it pays for – a process that is often murky at best. He portrayed the amended bill as an example of compromise.

“We work with the legislators” ​​​​on a variety of criminal justice-related legislation, Long said. "In most cases, we aren't 100 percent satisfied with what's enacted in the law. It’s not a surprise that any party is not going to be 100 percent satisfied with the final product. “In our system, you don’t always get what you want, but you may get what you need.”