The Pennsylvania Senate recently passed my and Senate President Pro Tempore Scarnati’s Senate Bill 8 to reform Pennsylvania’s asset forfeiture laws.
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. Law enforcement can seize personal property from citizens based only on the suspicion the property has been involved in criminal activity – and without ever having to charge the owner with a crime.
The proposed changes to Pennsylvania law reflect nearly two years of work with various parties, resulting in recommended changes to civil asset forfeiture that would be significant improvements to the status quo in a number of key areas, 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 of forfeited property;
- 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.
The current legislation is similar to last Session’s proposal, but for a few modifications, including the elimination of an unintended yet nonetheless unfunded mandate on counties and various technical modifications that would add further clarity and consistency to asset forfeiture.
Support for these proposed changes included the US Justice Action Network, a national organization working to curb the abuse of civil asset forfeiture, and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys’ Association.
Countless hours were devoted to drafting and redrafting to establish a careful balance between the rights of property owners with the realities law enforcement faces on a daily basis. The parties recognized the status quo doesn’t provide adequate protections for property owners and they worked together to bring important first steps and significant reforms to Pennsylvania law.
The alternative to this proposed legislation is doing nothing at all, which would allow the status quo to prevail with few – if any – protections for property owners.
Hopefully, the House of Representatives will agree and send this measure to the Governor to be signed into law.