The Institute for Justice has secured a big win in Philadelphia. The city's asset forfeiture program is being torn down and rebuilt as the result of IJ litigation.
In documents filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania today, city officials agreed to a set of reforms that will end the perverse financial incentives under which law enforcement keeps and uses forfeiture revenue, fundamentally reform procedures for seizing and forfeiting property, and establish a $3 million fund to compensate innocent people whose property was wrongly confiscated.
The city's program was infamous for things like seizing a house because one resident (not the owner) sold cops $40 worth of drugs. Another case featuring the IJ's legal assistance sought the return of another home seized after a $140 drug purchase. In the first instance, prosecutors dropped the case and returned the property after the litigation received national attention. In the latter, the state's Supreme Court found the seizure of the house unwarranted and unjustifiable -- a harsh punishment that far outstripped the seriousness of the crime.
The proposed settlement [PDF] would drastically alter Philly's forfeiture laws and policies. Importantly, it would strip the financial incentive for seizures by redirecting forfeiture funds towards drug rehab programs and away from the law enforcement agencies that have directly profited from this program for years.
It also would make tiny forfeitures -- the ones least likely to be disputed -- a historical relic. Seizures of less than $1,000 would either need to be tied to an arrest or used as evidence in criminal cases. Cash seizures of less than $250 would be completely forbidden. This is important because data shows the median cash seizure by Philly law enforcement is $178.
More due process is being introduced into the forfeiture process as well. If citizens can show a need for the seized property, they may be able to retain possession of it throughout the forfeiture proceedings. Property owners would -- for the first time -- be allowed to file requests for continuances if unable to make scheduled court dates. It also fully shifts the burden of proof to prosecutors, making them prove owners knew about illegal use of their property.
If the entire settlement is approved, the perverse incentives that have turned a potentially-useful crime fighting tool into a crime of opportunity will be removed and replaced with a set of deterrents that will steer law enforcement towards seizures supported by prosecutions and convictions, rather than by conclusory statements about theoretical illegal activity.
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