Cherri Gregg Mincey

Reporter, Anchor, Multimedia Journalist

Sample- Investigation

A Crack in the System: Asset Forfeiture in Philadelphia

Last year, Philadelphia police made nearly 1,300 arrests for drug-related crimes.  When police arrested these drug suspects, many times, they seized assets or property, including cash, cars or real estate believed to be involved in the alleged drug activity. What Philadelphians may not know is that this seizure of property did not require that the property owner be convicted of a crime, or even that the police file criminal charges.

“Civil forfeiture exposes property owners to liability even if they have done nothing wrong,” says Louis Rulli, Law Professor and Director of Clinical Programs at University of Pennsylvania Law School.

According to Rulli, when the police confiscate movable property, such as cash, the property is forfeited and becomes the subject of a civil action.  It is then up to the property owner to defeat the civil action and petition the Court for return of the property.  This procedure is very time consuming and can take months, or even years.

“The district attorney’s office has the burden to demonstrate a legal [connection] between the property and the wrongdoing,” says Rulli. “[But], 80 percent of individuals facing civil forfeiture never contest those proceedings.”

As a result, many civil forfeiture matters fall between the cracks of the civil and criminal court systems.  One of the reasons why the system fails these individuals is that there is no right to counsel in civil forfeiture cases.

“The public defender’s office does not represent property owners in these cases because it’s not a criminal matter,” says Rulli.  “Many low income individuals battle civil forfeiture without representation and therefore are subject to losing their property.”

Without an attorney, most victims of civil forfeiture do not– and cannot– fight back.

“Civil forfeiture is usually practiced against people who live in low income neighborhoods, people of color,” says Rulli.

George Jones, 32, is African American and lives in a low-income neighborhood.  He spent several years of his youth in state prison.  For the last few years, however, Jones has tried hard to stay out of the prison system.  He instead focuses on providing for his wife and two young sons.

“When I got out of jail, I went to school,” said Jones.  “I learned to be a carpenter.  I also learned scaffolding and other skills that help me work on houses.”

In August 2007, police arrested Jones while on his way home from a construction job.

“All I had in my pocket was my wallet,” said Jones.

According to the criminal complaint filed against Jones, he had $572 in his wallet.  Jones claimed he earned the money earlier that day for a home repair job.

“My rent was due the next day,” said Jones.  “[My boss] paid me cash up front because my plan was to use the money to pay my rent.”

Jones was charged with possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine.  Police seized the $572 found in Jones’ wallet.

In March 2009, a jury acquitted Jones of all charges.  At trial, Jones presented testimony from his employer and an eyewitness that helped tip the scale in his favor.

“What [the police] were saying was a lie,” said Jones.  “It was good that I had witnesses to prove my innocence.”

But a jury verdict in his favor did not end the matter.  Now, Jones’ $572 is a defendant in a civil forfeiture action.

“There is no automatic return of seized monies,” said a source from the Philadelphia district attorney’s office that requested that her identity remain anonymous.

“Cases are won and lost for a number of reasons,” said the source.  “Acquittal does not mean that the money or seized property was not used for an illegal purpose.”

Congress’ purpose for creating civil forfeiture laws was to deter drug crimes.  The policy behind civil forfeiture is that defendants should not be permitted to reap any benefits from illegal drug activities.  For this reason, property used to “facilitate” a drug crime is forfeited to the government.  But what happens if there is no evidence that the defendant is guilty of a crime?

One of the problems with defending forfeiture actions is that the burden of proof for criminal cases is different that that of civil cases.  In criminal cases, the district attorney must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the suspect committed the alleged crime.  This standard is very difficult to meet; it requires that the state first demonstrate that there is 99 percent certainty that the defendant committed the crime.

The burden of proof in civil cases is much lower.

“The Commonwealth’s burden in civil cases is to prove ‘by a preponderance of the evidence’ that the property is connected to the illegal activity,” says Professor Rulli. “This means that if the evidence is weighed and the scale tips in favor of the Commonwealth, the property is forfeited.”

This equals a windfall for the district attorney’s office.  Under Pennsylvania law, all cash or proceeds from forfeited property goes directly to the operating fund for the district attorney’s office.  If state law enforcement officials are involved, Pennsylvania law permits the proceeds from civil forfeiture actions to be divided between the district attorney and the Attorney General.

“Law enforcement agencies have a pecuniary interest in the outcome of the proceedings,” says Rulli.  “This is a conflict of interest because [the district attorney’s office] will draw substantial revenue from prosecuting these cases.”

Professor Rulli, who has worked as a public interest lawyer for more than 20 years helping low-income clients, believes that civil forfeiture laws should be reformed.

“They punish people who haven’t been found guilty of doing anything wrong,” says Rulli.  “There can be nothing more un-American than punishing people in this way.”

Some activists propose that states adopt the standard set in criminal forfeiture, which requires a finding of guilt before the property is forfeited.

“The idea that, if you do something wrong and are found guilty, then you forfeit your property is more in-line with the American idea of justice,” says Rulli.

Jones agrees.

“I did not do anything wrong.  I should get my money back,” says Jones.  “If I was to do this [to someone else], I would be charged with robbery.”

Even though it has been almost nine months since Jones was acquitted, Jones’ remains determined to get his $572 back.

“I want what I earned,” he says.  “It’s not about the amount of money.  I did good work to earn it.”

“Sometimes the amount of money at issue is so low, it doesn’t make sense to spend hundreds of dollars or more on a lawyer,” says Rulli.

Most community organizations cannot afford to provide free legal services to property owners when only a relatively small amount of money is at stake.  These organizations instead focus on civil forfeiture matters concerning real estate.

Luckily, Jones was able to find counsel willing to take his case on a pro bono basis.  Without this help, Jones would likely be forced to drop the case or accept a settlement.

“I am going to continue to pursue this,” said Jones.  “This is money I earned.  If I didn’t do anything wrong to get it, nobody– no system, no laws– should interfere with me having what is mine.”

Want more?

Listen to Jones’ account of what it was like to grow up in Philadelphia.

George Jones talks about his life in Philadelphia and his struggle to stay out of the prison system.
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