This legislative session has been a great one for asset forfeiture reform across the states. New Mexico enacted reforms to civil asset forfeiture laws that are leading people to declare it the most “Fifth Amendment friendly state in the country”. Now, legislators in Pennsylvania, a state previously cited as having “terrible” civil asset forfeiture laws, have introduced new legislation that will afford Pennsylvania citizens greater security from inappropriate seizure and greater due process.
Asset forfeiture, often referred to more narrowly as civil asset forfeiture, occurs when a law enforcement agency believes with some level of certainty that real or personal property has been used in the commission of a crime, or is part of the proceeds from a crime. All states have provided some statutory authority to these agencies to confiscate this property, and to then use or sell it and distribute the proceeds to various agencies or victims’ funds.
The problem with asset forfeiture is that in the overwhelming number of cases it does not require a conviction of an offense. The enforcement agency can seize the property under whatever standard of proof is statutorily set. In many cases, this is the preponderance of the evidence standard, the lowest burden of proof, requiring officers to only believe “more likely than not” the property in question was being used for or acquired from illegal purposes.
This has resulted in many terrifying cases of misuse. Fortunately, states across the country are beginning to respond. In Pennsylvania legislators are attempting to pass amendments to the practice of civil asset forfeiture that will better protect the state’s citizens. The changes in SB 896 will require a conviction for civil asset forfeiture to take place. It formally disfavors the practice and allows individuals who have successfully proven that their property was not lawfully subject to forfeiture to receive damages and attorney’s fees, further incentivizing appropriate seizures.
Right on Crime congratulates Pennsylvania and looks forward to seeing other states follow this strong lead.