HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania's civil forfeiture program contradicts the U.S. Constitution because it can allow prosecutors to take property from innocent people, even those not charged with a crime, a state senator said Tuesday.
"Unintentionally, we have just totally gotten away from these rights that have been given to us," said State Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Dauphin), speaking at a committee hearing in the Capitol.
Folmer has sponsored legislation that would change certain aspects of the law, which allows prosecutors to seize assets they believe have been acquired through illegal activity, such as drug dealing, even if the owner is not charged.
The statute has netted millions of dollars for prosecutors across the state, but advocates say innocent people are too often swept up in its wake. Four Philadelphia property owners last year filed a federal suit challenging certain portions of the law.
New provisions in Folmer's proposal would include a requirement that property owners be convicted of a crime before forfeiting assets, and the bill would end the practice of sending proceeds back to prosecuting agencies.
The fate of Folmer's proposal remains unclear, and any vote could be months away. But he was one of several people who testified in front of the Senate's Judiciary Committee to call for changes to the program.
"It's being unleashed against ordinary citizens," rather than the drug kingpins it was designed to target, said Louis Rulli, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has been critical of the program.
"I have always been very troubled by many aspects of this," said State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), another longtime reform advocate.
Prosecutors had a different take, telling the panel that discretion and supervision were key aspects of the program already built into many county district attorneys' offices.
Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, testifying on behalf of the state District Attorney's Association, also said that proceeds from the program can help fund important law enforcement initiatives, such as additional equipment or even drug antidotes.
The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed the state's forfeiture laws, noting that property owners are not entitled to an attorney during forfeiture proceedings.
In a report released Monday, the ACLU called Montgomery County's program one of the most "aggressive and abusive" in the state, and said it disproportionately affected African Americans.
While only 9 percent of Montgomery County residents are black, they represent 53 percent of those targeted for civil forfeiture, according to the ACLU review of cases between 2012 and 2014.
After the hearing, Leach said more discussions with interested stakeholders would occur before any final bill was presented.