Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture operation is reminiscent of a mob racket. The city regularly seizes petty cash, without charge, and often from innocent civilians. The city collects about $6 million in forfeited assets a year, which much of the spoils going to the D.A.’s office itself. (To put this into perspective, Los Angeles, which has over six times the population of Philadelphia, keeps about $1.2 million a year.)
The seizure program is not limited to cash. In 2014, a boy with a drug problem was caught selling drugs; as a first-time offender, he had to go to court-ordered rehab. While his father was driving him to rehab, the police evicted his mother from their house and seized it. Such instances are par for the course in Philadelphia’s program. Together with other plaintiffs and the Institute for Justice, the family filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia.
The City portrays its forfeiture as the decisive measure to prevent another Pablo Escobar type kingpin, yet the vast majority of seizures are of small amounts of money (under $250), and about a third of these seizures are unconnected with a conviction. Getting property back requires maneuvering through a convoluted and often contradictory process, meaning that many write off the chance of getting their property back altogether. This, for Philadelphia law enforcement, is not a bug but a feature. Over a 10-year period, 20% of the District Attorney’s Office’s budget came from seized funds, and $25 million in law enforcement and prosecutor salaries did as well. The city government’s incentives, then, are to make it as difficult as possible to undo a seizure.
A year after the lawsuit was filed, later the backlash from city residents seemed to be showing results. State senators Anthony Williams and Mike Folmer, a bipartisan pair, put together a reform bill that would require a conviction for seized assets to be kept and that would direct funds to a general fund, rather than to law enforcement. By the time it passed in 2016, it had been gutted to the point that Williams called it “not much more than [nothing]”.
The City has finally settled the lawsuit, agreeing to establish a $3 million fund to compensate victims of Philadelphia’s forfeiture program, and to reform the program itself. Some of the reforms are non-binding (the current D.A. said he would abide by a $500 threshold for cash seizure, for instance) but others will go a long way toward dismantling the perverse incentives that have characterized the system. Police will no longer get to keep seized funds, and the D.A.’s office will be limited to taking 1% of its annual budget. Larry Krasner, the current D.A., says that the $2.5 million in seized funds that his office currently holds will be used to settle the class-action lawsuit. He commits to directing seized assets to nonprofits that work at the ground level in communities for rehabilitation and crime prevention.
Details remain sparse, and reform should continue, but this represents an important step toward restoring property rights in Philadelphia. The fact that law enforcement won’t get to keep the money they seize (which has been spent on everything from trips to paying parking tickets) will hopefully shift from a profit motive for forfeiture to more curtailed use directed at preventing crimes. How this is implemented will be worth watching, and it might spur on other jurisdictions to do the same.
Philadelphia’s settlement comes at an interesting time. The Supreme Court is set to hear a civil forfeiture case this coming term, and Justice Thomas has long spoken about the practice’s disproportionate impact on poor communities who can fight it least. Perhaps the question will be settled as a constitutional matter.