Pennsylvania Judge Calls Civil Asset Forfeiture “State-Sanctioned Theft”

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini criticized that state’s civil asset forfeiture law as “amount[ing] to little more than state-sanctioned theft.” In this decision issued last month, Judge Pellegrini remanded a forfeiture case for reconsideration by a trial court. Hopefully, it will be the opening salvo to get Pennsylvania lawmakers to reform the Keystone State’s terrible civil asset forfeiture laws, which earned a D in the Institute for Justice’s Policing for Profit report. The Scranton Times-Tribune is already calling on legislators to “fix the state’s draconian forfeiture law.”

In the forfeiture case, (with the rather catchy name of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. All That Certain Lot Or Parcel Of Land Located At 605 University Drive, State College, Centre County, Pennsylvania And Described With Particularity At Deed Book 1419 Page 0976 In The Office Of The Recorder Of Deeds, Tax Parcel Number 36-014-123A) the state wanted to seize Gregory Palazzari’s gas station in State College, Pa., for allegedly being a storage and selling place for cocaine. Palazzari pled guilty to drug trafficking charges, but argued that the gas station should not be forfeited under the law. The government argued Palazarri was not entitled to a hearing in court to present evidence against the forfeiture.

But in a victory for property rights, Judge Pellegrini ruled that a hearing was necessary:

“Because a forfeiture proceeding is a quasi-criminal punitive proceeding, the General Assembly mandated a hearing requiring the Commonwealth to present its evidence in open court, much like it has to do in a criminal proceeding where similar constitutional principles are implicated and not do it just on the papers.”

As Eric Boehm writes in Reason, “This ruling could set a new precedent in Pennsylvania, requiring the state to have a hearing before a judge in all asset forfeiture cases. That means the accused defendant or convict would have a chance to be heard by a judge before the state could seize any property.”

However, there is still a long way to go to truly protect Pennsylvanians’ property from forfeiture abuse. As IJ attorney Larry Salzman points out, this ruling does not weaken the “perverse financial incentive” for police:

“Forfeiture becomes a means by which law enforcement agencies can pad their budgets, so they end up with a direct and perverse financial incentive to pursue forfeitures very aggressively…This case in Pennsylvania at least makes the government come into court with real evidence and hold a hearing. But it doesn’t change this perverse incentive and it doesn’t change the fact that someone could lose their property without being convicted of a crime.”

Just this last month, the Institute for Justice reported on Philadelphia police who notoriously abuse civil asset forfeiture, seizing over $6 million a year. The Philadelphia City Paper calls it a “seize first, ask questions later” policy. Or as the great economist Frederic Bastiat once wrote on “legal plunder:” “It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.”

-- Nick Sibilla

Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice

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