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What Is Civil Forfeiture?

If you’ve paid any attention to the news over the last several months, you may have heard the term “civil forfeiture” or “civil asset forfeiture” brought up. The controversial practice found itself in the limelight again roughly a year ago after Attorney General Jeff Sessions came out in support of the practice and sought to expand it. However, the move was overwhelmingly blocked by a bipartisan group in Congress.

What is civil forfeiture in the first place? This little-known practice is one that many Americans have never heard of, and shockingly so, as it could come back to affect them with little to no warning. To put it simple, civil forfeiture is the practice of law enforcement charging property with being involved in the perpetration of a crime, and thus seizing it. This is often done without any accusations against the property’s owner, and without obtaining a search warrant from a judge. To make matters even more confusing, states are allowed to make their own laws and set their own standards for civil forfeiture, and the standards can vary from a complete and total ban on the practice to virtually allowing officers to seize property at will with little to no evidence of any wrongdoing.

Arguments For & Against

Law enforcement officers claim that civil asset forfeiture is an invaluable tool for two reasons. First, it allows officers to crack down on and seize any property used in the perpetration of a crime, thus de-incentivizing criminals from attempting to perpetrate illegal acts in their jurisdiction. They particularly like to point to drug crimes, where transporting large sums of cash, drugs, or drug paraphernalia is often conducted right under society’s nose. Officers argue that civil forfeiture allows officers to seize this contraband, thus giving criminals a reason to think twice before trying to enter their domain.

Second, officers claim it helps keep taxes in their municipalities low. This is because many states permit the precincts that perform the seizure to use the assets seized to fund the department. A better-funded department functions better and also doesn’t require as much assistance from the government, thus meaning taxes can be kept lower without sacrificing the safety of the public.

However, civil rights activists, criminal defense lawyers, and many politicians have argued that this practice is a blatant and total disregard for constitutional rights to privacy and property, and essentially ignores the Fourth Amendment’s unreasonable search and seizure protection laws. Furthermore, they argue that allowing seized assets to fund departments incentivizes corruption and unlawful use of the practice to harass and essentially rob law-abiding citizens, who have little to no way of fighting back. And unfortunately, these concerns have been vindicated on numerous occasions, as entire departments have been found abusing the system for their own benefit in cities across the country.

And to make matters worse, those who have their property seized often have little chance of being able to ever get it back, even if they’re completely innocent. Whereas criminal courts hold those accused of crimes to be “innocent until proven guilty,” property is considered “guilty until proven innocent.” Thus, the departments place the onus on the property’s owner to show that it was not used in the perpetration of a crime, which can be a long, difficult, and expensive process. In many cases, property owners simply choose to cut their losses rather than waste the money trying to recover the property in a lengthy court battle that’s already heavily stacked against them.

Pennsylvania Forfeiture Laws

So what does Pennsylvania law say about this practice? Unfortunately, to this day only one state has fully and completely abolished asset forfeiture, and a small handful actually require a criminal conviction before authorizing the seizure of property. Pennsylvania is not one of these states.

Instead, the legal standard in Pennsylvania for authorizing asset forfeiture is known as “preponderance of evidence.” In essence, what this means is that if the seizing officer, in their best judgement based on the evidence available at the time of the seizure, believes that it’s more likely true than untrue that the property in question is connected to a crime, then it can legally be seized. Furthermore, 100% of all forfeiture proceeds go right back into law enforcement coffers, thus motivating officers to seize everything they can.

If you have been arrested or had your property unlawfully seized, you have a limited amount of time to fight back and reclaim that which rightfully belongs to you. Call the Law Offices of William D. Thompson at (570) 666-1068 today for a case evaluation to get started.