Civil asset forfeiture: Practical or punitive?

If you have a bundle of cash, there is no law against you carrying it with you wherever you go. That kind of action isn’t typically recommended, though, because of the risk the carrier faces if some nefarious person finds out about the stash and decides to take it.

What might surprise you however, is that sometimes the taker isn’t always a criminal. It could be the police. And the action can happen without warning or even a warrant. This is allowed under the legal theory of civil forfeiture. It states authorities can seize large sums of cash and even real property (houses, cars, boats) in some cases without the target being charged with a crime.

History in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has had a reputation as one of worst states for civil forfeiture laws. Not long ago, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union gave the state a grade of D-minus, observing that by law, all police needed to seize property was a preponderance of evidence of ties to possible crime. It was then up to the owners to prove their innocence to recover. Worse, while counties had to report seizure amounts to the legislature, they did not have to be itemized, making recovery by innocent owners harder.

That changed somewhat last year. The governor signed a reform measure into law. Proponents acknowledge it as a positive step, but say still more is needed.

What’s changed

The key elements in the reform law include:

  • An increased burden of proof on authorities before seizures can take place
  • Greater protection for third-party owners
  • More detailed auditing and reporting requirements
  • The necessity of a hearing before any pre-forfeiture seizure
  • Greater protections for persons acquitted of alleged crimes seeking return of their property

Of course, these reforms cover only seizures by state authorities. Federal agents do not face the same restrictions and so it remains possible for unsuspecting innocent individuals to see their possessions taken on the basis of a single witnessed incident, such as buying an expensive travel ticket using only cash. The person doesn’t have to be guilty. A presumption of guilt is on the money.

When seizures of this kind occur, charges could follow. These often fall under the category of white collar crimes, such as fraud or money laundering. If you have lost property to police seizure, you should take it as a signal that you need experienced legal counsel, as found within the team at Berman & Associates.

Categories: Criminal Law