Pubdate: Mon, 21 Aug 2017
Source: Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
Copyright: 2017 The Morning Call Inc.
Author: Riley Yates


Northampton County's drug forfeiture program netted $132,000 last
year, the district attorney's office announced.

Northampton County's drug forfeiture program seized more than $132,000
in the past year, on par with other years despite heightened scrutiny
of the practice nationwide.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, the program brought in $122,000 in
cash, plus $9,900 from the sale of forfeited vehicles, District
Attorney John Morganelli announced.

The proceeds represented an increase from the $112,000 averaged in the
four previous years. But they were well short of the program's record
in fiscal 2011, when $283,000 was seized.

"Our numbers are pretty much the same this year," said Morganelli.
"It's an average year."

Pennsylvania law allows prosecutors to seize money, vehicles, real
estate and other valuables that were used for the drug trade or bought
with drug profits. The forfeitures are done through civil suits that
run outside of the criminal process.

As a result, forfeiture programs have faced criticism across the
United States and in Pennsylvania from groups such as the ACLU, who
say they are being misused by prosecutors to take homes, cars and cash
without charging or convicting someone of a crime.

In May, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court limited the forfeiture law,
ruling that prosecutors must prove the property they are seizing
played a significant role in illegal drug activity. The justices also
said the courts must consider whether the value of the property is
proportionate to the gravity of the crime.

Northampton County's highest forfeiture last fiscal year was $19,450,
according to the district attorney's office. It was from an Easton man
who is a fugitive on 2016 charges that allege he was selling heroin
and cocaine out of his mother's Butler Street home.

The lowest forfeiture was $69.

The proceeds pay the salary of an assistant district attorney who
prosecutes drug cases. They are also used for undercover drug
purchases, police equipment and training, and grants to local police
departments and civic groups.

Unlike some jurisdictions, Morganelli said Northampton County
typically pursues forfeitures only against those who have been found
guilty in a criminal case.

"Generally speaking, we have an arrest and a conviction," Morganelli
said. "We try to stick with that."

That wasn't the case in one forfeiture petition that was recently
thrown out at the courthouse in Easton. It was filed by the state
attorney general's office -- and not local prosecutors -- and sought
to seize $49,120 in cash from a New York driver who was stopped on
Interstate 78 in Lower Saucon Township.

Norman S. Alsaidi of Queens was never charged with a crime in the
March 2015 stop that came as he changed lanes. But state police
nonetheless tied Alsaidi to the drug trade, saying he looked
"extremely nervous" and had the bag full of cash on his passenger
seat, though a search of his rented minivan uncovered no drugs or
other illegal contraband.

In June, Judge Paula Roscioli dismissed the forfeiture, ruling that
troopers had no legitimate reason to stop Alsaidi. As a result, the
stop violated constitutional protections and any evidence it garnered
must be suppressed, she wrote.

Morganelli has run Northampton County's forfeiture program since 1992.
In that time, it has taken in more than $2 million.
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