Policing for profit

ACLU of Pennsylvania
7 min readApr 21, 2017

By Andy Hoover, Communications Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

A new Pa. Senate Bill would do nothing to reform civil asset forfeiture practices. Photo via Occupy.com.

In the coming days or weeks, you may hear about the Pennsylvania Senate’s effort to revise civil asset forfeiture. You may even hear it called “reform.” Don’t believe the hype. It is not the kind of reform that will solve the flaws of civil forfeiture and protect people’s rights.

Civil asset forfeiture is the legal process that allows law enforcement agencies to take and permanently keep property that they claim is connected to crime. Forfeiture is not part of a criminal proceeding. No one needs to be charged with a crime, much less convicted, in order to lose property through forfeiture. It happens through a civil suit against the property itself, so cases have nonsensical titles like Commonwealth v. Real Property and Improvements Commonly Known as 416 S. 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA, and 1997 Chevrolet and Contents Seized from James Young. That’s an actual case.

A property owner has no guaranteed right to counsel in a civil forfeiture proceeding. And the revenue that is generated from forfeiture goes directly to the district attorneys and the police — the very agencies that make decisions about what property to seize and keep.

Critics call it “policing for profit.”

In 2015, the ACLU of Pennsylvania researched the forfeiture practices in three Pennsylvania counties: Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Cumberland. In all three counties, we found similar patterns, including significant percentages of people who had property forfeited without ever being convicted of a crime. We also found rates of forfeiture cases against African-Americans that were disproportionate to their percentage of the general population.

Civil forfeiture has become so toxic and the momentum is so overwhelmingly in favor of reform that every candidate at this week’s DA for the People Candidate Forum in Philadelphia committed to using forfeiture only after winning a criminal conviction.

That brings us to this moment. Last session, both the state Senate and state House had bills in front of them that would have implemented genuine reform of civil asset forfeiture. Those bills required a property owner to be convicted of a crime before their property could be forfeited (though it could be seized pre-conviction, based upon probable cause); diverted the funds generated from forfeiture to the local treasury, just like every other form of revenue; and guaranteed counsel to people facing forfeiture by making forfeiture part of a criminal prosecution.

A strong coalition of advocacy groups supported this reform, including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation, the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, Pennsylvania Prison Society, Keystone Progress, the Philadelphia Bar Association, and local chapters of NORML, among others.

Alas, the law enforcement lobby — led by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association — convinced Senate leadership to water down the bill to the point of being meaningless. None of the reforms that are necessary to end the abuses that have thrived in Pennsylvania remain in the resulting legislation, Senate Bill 8. As a result, no Pennsylvania-based advocacy group supports the bill, except for law enforcement.

SB 8 has been voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and out of the Senate Appropriations Committee and is now before the full chamber for a final vote. You might hear some claim this is reform. Legislation that doesn’t solve the problems of civil asset forfeiture isn’t reform at all. It’s mere window dressing.

One more thing:

We’ve talked quite a bit in The Appeal about body cameras and specifically about SB560, the wrongheaded Pennsylvania body camera bill that would effectively make body camera footage unobtainable to anyone but cops and district attorneys. Well, the support for our resistance against that bill has been overwhelming. Editorials have run in The Post-Gazette, The Times-Tribune, The Intelligencer, The Reading Eagle, and even the University of Pittsburgh’s student newspaper, The Pitt News, calling out the bill’s wrongheadedness and lack of transparency. We thank those outlets.

But we need your help, too.

Senate Bill 560 gives law enforcement a host of reasons to deny requests for video. And if a person appeals a request, the bill instructs the court to give “deference” to the law enforcement agency and even charges the person $125 for appealing the denial. If this bill becomes law, police cameras will cease to be a tool for accountability. Instead, they will be yet another tool for police surveillance. Tell your state senator to vote NO.

Please click here to do so. Your voice needs to be heard, too.


(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Map via The Incline: How Pa. House (left) and Senate (right) legislators plan to vote on withholding names of officers who shoot civilians.
  • From The Incline: “Pa. legislature weighs how much you get to know about police body cameras, officers involved in shootings”

“Pittsburgh began outfitting police officers with body cameras in 2014 and does not release footage to the public. The ACLU of Pennsylvania recently obtained the city’s body camera policies through a Right to Know request. An expert on these types of policies told ACLU-Pa., ‘Pittsburgh’s policies are not very good.’ Costa acknowledged that the bill is a work in progress and invited comment from his constituents. The Pa. Senate passed a similar bill last session with only five senators voting nay; it did not go to the House for a vote.”

  • Daily News: “Like Daytona, race for Philly DA keeps turning left”

“The event was billed as the Philly District Attorney for the People Forum, but the spirit behind a fairly remarkable two-hour event that brought a few hundred folks to pack the pews in the Center City sanctuary was best summarized by its Twitter hashtag: #DecarcerateDA. It was impossible to step into the spring air on Broad Street at the end of the night without thinking that Philadelphia will have fewer of its citizens in jail or in upstate prisons, and perhaps say goodnight for good to the death penalty, after the dust finally settles next January. It might have been different if Beth Grossman, the Republican candidate, or Rich Negrin, the perhaps more moderate candidate endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, who was said to have a case of pneumonia, were at the event. With the six Democrats who did attend, the DA’s race is starting to feel a little like the Daytona 500 — with every turn to the left.”

  • Post-Gazette: “Federal appeals court OKs suit over state prison suicide”

“Bret Grote, the attorney representing the Palakovics, said the case will now move into discovery That will allow him to find what the Department of Corrections knew about the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into conditions at Cresson and prisons statewide, which was announced in December 2011 and concluded after Palakovic’s suicide. The Justice Department report, issued in May 2013, was critical of Cresson’s ‘long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness.’ Mr. Grote said his clients want their day in court. ‘More than money damages, they want this case to set a precedent so others don’t have to go through what they’ve had to.’” Read the decision here.

  • Grits For Breakfast: “Book Review: Pfaff’s Locked In directs reformers in wrong direction”

“Not only is [Fordham law professor John] Pfaff wrong to belittle efforts to reduce penalties for nonviolent offenses, he’s also wrong that such efforts preclude focus on reducing incarceration of people convicted of violent crimes in state prisons. In Texas, the state increased release rates for violent offenders at the same time the Legislature was focused on reforms aimed at nonviolent crimes. It’s simply not been my experience that the rhetorical problems he hypothesizes from the ivory tower play out that way in the real world (a sentiment I’ve expressed to him in private correspondence a time or two).”

  • New Republic: “Professor Carnage: “Dave Grossman teaches police officers to think like ‘warriors.’ But is the rise of a militarized mindset turning black citizens into targets?”

“My father smiles wryly. Cops didn’t think of themselves as warriors in his day. But by the time he retired, in 1998, he had witnessed firsthand the seismic shift in policing that gave rise to the warrior cop. “The younger cops are a little different, you know,” he told me. “Christ, they pump fucking iron, got shaved heads, got fucking tattoos.” He likened them to Special Forces soldiers. ‘I think they’re being trained that way,’ he added. ‘You guys didn’t get trained like that?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You were just an ordinary person that happened to be a cop. You weren’t out to conquer the fucking world. Just the assholes, that’s all.’”

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ACLU of Pennsylvania

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.