Pennsylvania's asset-forfeiture laws, which turn property used in drug deals into funding for law enforcement, are designed to make Philadelphians safer and to make it harder for drug dealers to do their illegal work.
Drug dealers and the social rot that comes with their trade ruin neighborhoods - they bring addiction, illegal firearms, death, despair, and destruction. With our growing epidemic of prescription-drug and heroin overdoses, making it harder for dealers to operate by removing their profits and profit motive is a good thing.
Think about the kid who can't play outside anymore because he might get caught in the cross fire; the grandmother who's threatened by dealers when she just wants to sit on her porch; the homeowner whose only real investment is his house, but who has to watch its value plummet when his block becomes an open-air drug market.
Don't believe the claims that we are just snatching up property, mostly homes and autos, owned by random individuals who have nothing to do with drug dealing. A recent state audit shows that most Philadelphia forfeitures involve cash, not houses and cars. In fact, about 80 percent of what we collected in 2014 through the forfeiture process was cash, and that's generally cash seized directly from drug dealers. It's the lifeblood of their illegal, soul-destroying business.
In addition, all forfeitures, whether involving money or property, get adjudicated through a judicial process. District attorneys don't get to just take stuff; we have to prove that the property was used in drug dealing. We file petitions, go to court, and either have a hearing or reach a settlement - just like any other legal proceeding, criminal or civil.
Civil forfeiture works a lot like any lawsuit involving property. If you leave your building unsecured and a fire starts, or you leave your pool unfenced and a kid drowns, you can get sued. That's the idea behind drug forfeiture. If you endanger your community by allowing your property to be used for drug dealing, you may find yourself in court. You may not get convicted of a crime or go to jail, but you still violated state civil law.
One of the features of that law is the "innocent owner" defense. It's a legal doctrine that permits people to show they weren't responsible for the illegal activity occurring on their property. But the truth is that forfeiture defendants have always had that right under the law - and many of them have invoked it. That's right and proper. I'm committed to using every tool that I have to make Philadelphians safer, but I'm going to do it fairly and within the law.
Other prosecutors do the same, on up to Eric Holder, the attorney general of the United States. Recently, Holder announced a change in forfeiture policy: He will no longer "adopt" forfeiture cases initiated by state and local police. But he's certainly not ending the program; he'll just concentrate on cases begun by the federal government itself. In fact, the nominee to succeed Holder, Loretta Lynch, stated in her confirmation hearing that she thinks "asset forfeiture is a wonderful tool."
It's a tool used far more extensively by the feds than by local officials. In 2012, the last year I've seen figures for, the Justice Department seized almost $9 billion worth of property in civil, noncriminal proceedings. That's nine billion, with a B - or about 1,800 times more than the value of all the property seized that year in Philadelphia.
Important as forfeiture is, however, I certainly agree that the process should be as fair and efficient as possible. I'm always looking for ways to improve the criminal justice system. I've done it with better charging decisions, with streamlined guilty-plea processes, and with diversion and rehabilitation programs for young drug offenders and prostitution defendants.
And I'm doing it now with forfeiture. Under my administration, we have taken significantly less property than was taken in previous years. I've created new, tighter protocols for house seizures, and I'm negotiating with members of the legislature about ways to reform the state forfeiture statute. I'll also be considering additional changes to Philadelphia's forfeiture procedures.
But the goal, at least for those who care about the real victims of rampant drug dealing, has to be to preserve this tool - not to destroy it.