Civil Forfeiture No Longer Federally Sanctioned
In a sweeping check on police powers, Attorney General Eric Holder prohibited local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without evidence that a crime occurred through a process called civil forfeiture. If you didn’t know, until recently, the federal government participated in a profit-sharing program where local police could circumvent state restrictions on civil asset forfeiture by nominally involving federal agencies in their investigations. They would then give over some of the assets to federal agencies, but be able to be only subject to the more permissive federal laws on the practice. In an attempt to curtail widespread abuse of the practice, federal support of this has been discontinued.
Exactly what civil forfeiture is can be confusing. Essentially, it is a police practice through which they can take possession of any civil assets suspected of being involved with a crime. These can range from money from illegal profits, cars used to transport contraband, and even homes where contraband was stored or sold. Where it gets trickier is that civil forfeiture requires no actual human to get tried in court. In civil forfeiture cases, the actual asset is on trial and is assumed guilty until someone can prove that the object in question was not used for criminal purposes. In theory, this is a way to punish criminals by taking away their assets; however, in practice, it has been used to seize property of innocent citizens who have never been charged with a crime.
Does This Mean My Property Is Now Safe from Civil Forfeiture in Pennsylvania?
Unfortunately, not yet. According to Louis S. Rulli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and expert on civil forfeiture in an email to Slate, “The Attorney General’s announcement is certainly very welcome news and an important step toward stemming civil forfeiture abuse, but it is going to have limited impact in states and localities because most seizures of cash, cars, and homes are conducted under the auspices of state law.” In layman’s terms, civil forfeiture is still permitted by the state of Pennsylvania, albeit with some different limits, so it can still be abused. Still, many people are hopeful that this will be a good first step towards reforms.
Pennsylvania is still a state with a long way to go towards reform. In state civil forfeiture laws, assets can be seized if police determine that there is a greater than fifty percent chance that a crime has occurred, and it is usually a very subjective call. Furthermore, advocates are encouraging the state to reform laws determining how assets are used once seized to de-incentivize abuse. Hopefully we will see lawmakers close loopholes on this practice even further this year in an effort to curtail its use against innocent civilians.
In the meantime, there are several things you can do to protect yourself from civil forfeiture actions. First, if law enforcement means to seize your property, get your legitimate reason for having the asset put in the report and on the record. While police are not obligated to believe you, if your reasons are well-documented and presented upfront, you are more likely to recover it later. By making it clear that you are willing to fight to keep an asset, you may even convince police not to take it. When they do seize your property, make sure to get any relevant police reports and consult an experienced Pittsburgh criminal lawyer. While it can be a fight to get your property back, it’s possible to build an effective case with the help of experienced lawyers.