While I’m not an attorney, I have new respect for them as I worked to bring changes to Pennsylvania’s asset forfeiture law. Asset forfeitures are civil proceedings against property that allow law enforcement to take possession of property of certain persons suspected of crime. Drug arrests are the most common examples of seizures: cash, cars, and sometimes homes.
In June 2015, I introduced Senate Bill 869 to better protect property owners suspected of being involved in a crime and, over the past year, I worked with both supporters and opponents of this measure to see if there were areas of agreement.
In the beginning, it didn’t appear there would be much consensus among the two as both used high rhetoric in describing the bill. However, over time, a number of the parties were able to find some areas of agreement, which led to various proposals and drafts to take agreed-to concepts and put them into legislative language.
While some of these changes seem rather technical to those of us who aren’t attorneys, the explanations for laymen convinced me these are important changes, which were incorporated into my bill through various amendments.
The amended SB 869 represented some major concessions among the parties at the table and I recognized the need to support it. Doing nothing would have preserved the status quo, which provides few protections for property owners.
As passed by the Senate, this legislation makes significant and unprecedented changes to asset forfeitures in Pennsylvania, including:
- Higher burdens of proof imposed on the Commonwealth;
- Protection for third-party owners by placing an additional burden of proof on the Commonwealth;
- Improved transparency in auditing and reporting;
- Specific and additional protection in real property cases by prohibiting the pre-forfeiture seizure of real property without a hearing, and;
- An extra level of protection for anyone acquitted of a related crime who is trying to get their property back
While support for these proposed changes was not unanimous, SB 869 overwhelmingly passed the Senate and I believe represents solid reforms that need to be considered for enactment into law to streamline the forfeiture process and provide greater protections to all types of property owners.
Senate Bill 869 is an important first step towards smarter forfeiture practices and provides better due process for property owners. I hope the House of Representatives and the Governor will agree so that Senate Bill 869 can be signed into law in the waning days of the 2015 – 2016 legislative Session.