Civil Forfeiture Changes Will Create Drug Dealer’s Bill of Rights

October 20, 2015

S.B. 869 Will Help Drug Dealers and Hurt Our Communities

HARRISBURG, PA – Pennsylvania’s district attorneys today warned that proposed changes to the Commonwealth’s civil forfeiture system would have grave consequences that will help drug dealers and hurt communities.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association President and Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Ferman said that the changes outlined in S.B. 869 would empower, enable and assist drug dealers by allowing them to keep and use their illegal profits and the property they use to traffic narcotics.

“This bill should be referred to as, ‘The Pennsylvania Drug Dealer Bill of Rights,’” said Ferman.  “When more people are dying from drug overdoses than ever before, now is not the time to give a break to drug dealers.  This bill will allow drug dealers to traffic more drugs, make more money and thrive.”

While PDAA recognizes and supports reasonable reforms to improve the civil forfeiture system, Ferman said the provisions written into S.B. 869 go too far.  She testified that the bill as currently written fails to recognize how drug dealers operate or how drug investigations take place.  Should the bill become law, Ferman said it would not only allow drug dealers to keep the tools of their trade, but will also help some defendants intimidate witnesses, avoid convictions and could severely limit law enforcement efforts to stop them.

“Requiring a criminal conviction as a mandatory condition for forfeiture would be an enormous win for drug dealers and would make it simple for drug dealers to protect their property, proceeds, and instrumentalities of crime,” Ferman noted as she outlined how the proposed procedures would play out in the justice system.  “This bill throws out a system communities fighting back against crime and violence count on.”

Many forfeiture proceedings begin because members of a community or community groups contact law enforcement about dangerous and illegal drug activity.

“Forfeiture is about public safety,” Ferman said.  “When individuals are scared to leave their homes because illegal drug activity brings with it violence and illegal firearms; when   the values of homes plummet because a corner store is being used to sell drugs; when kids are scared to walk to school because they have to go through an area where drug dealers are congregated – forfeiture helps make communities safer.”

Under the current forfeiture process, people’s rights are carefully protected. Civil forfeiture proceedings are governed by extensive civil statutory requirements, due process, court rules, and case law. However, District Attorneys have proposed changes to the forfeiture system that balance concerns that have been expressed with community safety including limiting instances in which a property can be seized before the entry of a forfeiture order and in cases where illegal activity occurs on or in a property, such as a house or car, but the person committing the crime is not the owner, putting the burden of proof on the Commonwealth to prove that the owner had knowledge of the illegal activity and consented to it.

“District Attorneys believe there is a way to tighten the procedures that govern civil forfeiture without making it easier for drug dealers to traffic and sell drugs,” Ferman said.  “The responsible thing to do is to find the right balance between tightening up forfeiture procedures while not harming our ability to take the profit out of the drug trade and keep our communities safe from drug traffickers.”

Forfeiture not only makes communities safer by taking the money and tools of the drug trade out of the hands of criminals, but also by investing forfeiture proceeds into crime fighting and community building tools.  Drug task forces, the heroin antidote naloxone and investments in technology are just a few examples of how forfeiture turns drug money into a net win for taxpayers and the community.