Pubdate: Sun, 21 Jun 2015
Source: Pottstown Mercury (PA)
Copyright: 2015 The Mercury, a Journal Register Property
Author: Andrew Staub, PA Independent


HARRISBURG - Retired Maj. Neill Franklin oversaw more than a dozen 
drug task forces that used civil asset forfeiture laws to seize 
millions in property.

But by the late 1990s even Franklin, who worked for the Maryland 
State Police, began to think something was wrong with the system.

Franklin was reviewing paperwork from a case on the Eastern Shore. 
Police had seized a man's car, and it was suspected the car was used 
in drug deals. But the owner was never charged with a crime.

The man wanted the car back so he could get to work, and police 
agreed to return it - as long he paid storage and administrative fees 
of a couple hundred dollars, says Franklin. It cost nothing to park 
the car on a police lot.

"Basically, we held this guy's car for ransom and then made money off 
of giving it back," said Franklin, who is now fighting for national 
civil asset reform as executive director of Law Enforcement Against 
Prohibition, which opposes the War on Drugs.

Franklin visited the Pennsylvania state Capitol on Wednesday about 20 
years after he first saw the problems with civil asset forfeiture and 
joined a diverse coalition calling on lawmakers here to reform the system.

While law enforcement officials argue civil asset forfeiture is a 
vital tool to strip drug dealers and other lawbreakers of the 
resources they use to commit crimes, the practice has come under 
increasing scrutiny across the country. Critics argue it's an affront 
to the constitutional right to due process and that it's used to pad 
law enforcement budgets.

Pennsylvania law allows police to seize cash, cars and even homes if 
they believe they're connected to a crime. Prosecutors can file for 
the property's forfeiture and obtain - even if the owner has never 
been charged or convicted of a crime.

Law agencies keep the proceeds, giving them a financial interest in 
using the law. In one case, a prosecutor in Pennsylvania doled out 
staff bonuses with the proceeds.

A Missouri police chief also once referred to forfeiture money as 
"pennies from heaven" that can be used to buy "a toy or something 
that you need." last month reported the Mississippi city 
of Richland funded its $4.1 million police station with forfeiture money.

The practice is problematic in Pennsylvania, too, said the state 
chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It released a report 
this week that found the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office 
takes and keeps some 100 homes, 150 vehicles and about $4 million in 
cash each year.

Looking at cases from 2011 to 2013, the ACLU found almost a third of 
the instances of cash forfeiture involved money owned by people not 
convicted of a crime. More than half the time fewer than $200 in cash 
was at stake, meaning it made little sense for owners to hire an 
attorney or take off work to go to court to get it back.

Because civil asset forfeiture petitions are civil cases filed 
against the property itself, owners aren't guaranteed an attorney, as 
they are in criminal cases. Molly Tack-Hooper, a staff attorney with 
the ACLU of Pennsylvania, called it a "fundamentally broken system," 
though reform could be on the way.

State Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, has proposed legislation that 
would require a conviction before property could be forfeited. It 
would require that proceeds of forfeiture go into a general 
government fund, versus funding budgets for police and prosecutors. A 
companion bill is expected in the state House.

Police could still seize property suspected of being used in a crime 
under Folmer's law, ACLU lobbyist Andy Hoover said, but they would 
need a conviction to keep it.

Still, law enforcement agencies have vehemently argued against the 
reform, and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office responded 
tersely to the ACLU report in a statement.

"The district attorney's office continues to improve and streamline 
its forfeiture program, especially when it comes to adding additional 
protections for property owners," the statement read. "But, unlike 
the ACLU, we are not willing to ignore the true innocent parties 
here  the underprivileged residents of drug-plagued neighborhoods. 
They deserve the equal protection of the law and they are entitled to 
expect the justice system to shut down drug houses and take guns and 
cash out of the hands of criminals."

Louis Rulli, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who 
supervises a legal clinic that has helped low-income people facing 
forfeiture proceedings, said the justice system sometimes takes more 
innocuous things - a child's piggy bank, for instance.

Law officers took the bank while searching the home of a woman never 
charged with a crime, Rulli said. It took more than a year for 
attorneys to reclaim the piggy bank and the $91 inside, Rulli said.

"That's why most people give up. That's why this law needs to be 
reformed," he said.

Another Pennsylvania horror story - the case of an older Philadelphia 
couple facing the loss of their home after their grown son was 
accused of selling marijuana from the porch - was included in an 
August story in The New Yorker.

Titled "Taken," the article led to reform - just not in Pennsylvania. 
A Montana lawmaker, Democratic state Rep. Kelly McCarthy, read the 
article and introduced a bill requiring a conviction before property 
could be forfeited - police there once kept $16,000 seized from an 
out-of-state farmer who came to buy tractor parts.

Law enforcement howled over McCarthy's bill, even though the 
legislation still allowed police to seize property suspected of being 
used in a crime. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed the bill anyway, 
and it will become law later this year.

"I've probably bought myself a lifetime of busted tail lights," McCarthy said.

The Montana lawmaker looks at Pennsylvania and wonders whether the 
founding fathers who once called the Keystone State home envisioned a 
thing such as civil asset forfeiture.

"You think they sat around and thought, 'Hey, one day these guys will 
be taking a toaster to court?" he said.

McCarthy hopes U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican presidential 
candidate, is successful in his ongoing quest to change the law, a 
push that also closes a loophole allowing states to use federal law 
to pursue forfeiture.

The federal government has already installed some limitations on 
civil forfeiture; New Mexico has joined Montana in reforming the practice.

Those actions have heartened Franklin, the former narcotics 
investigator who continued to use civil asset forfeiture even while 
questioning the case of the car held ransom. The practice designed to 
hamstring drug kingpins during the days of Ronald Reagan isn't so 
virtuous, he said.

"This practice has now morphed into something evil, something more 
devastating to the average citizen," Franklin said, calling for a 
conviction requirement. "That's justice, that is our responsibility 
and that is in line with our Bill of Rights."
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