When most Americans hear the words, “district attorney,” they probably think and the long-running television drama Law & Order. But in Delaware County, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Philadelphia), District Attorney Jack Whelan traded the good-natured heroism of the fictional Jack McCoy for the villainous antics of taking money from private citizens to pay for campaign ads. In a bid to win the judicial nominating primaries for both the Democratic and Republican parties, Whelan spent more than $53,000 advertising his name and likeness, according to City & State Pennsylvania. That money came not from his campaign coffers, but instead from taxpayers and civil forfeiture:
On paper, the ad buy was merely the continuation of a public service campaign aimed at deterring straw purchases of guns his office has run since 2015. But this year, Whelan, a Republican, directed his office to increase its ad purchases by some 540 percent – $53,000 in the two months before the May primary, compared to $6,250 in all of 2016.
Emails obtained by City&State PA also show Whelan asking his staff to ensure that his name would appear in a larger font size than previous years. Advertising contracts obtained by City&State PA show the ad placements—from digital billboards off I-95 to SEPTA bus shelter ads—heavily tracked predominantly Democratic portions of Delaware County.
Whelan, a lock for the Republican nomination in the race for Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, was notably campaigning at the time for the Democratic nod in a bid to run unopposed in November. His office halted the advertising, which was paid for in part with civil asset forfeiture proceeds, shortly after the primary.
Under civil forfeiture, law enforcement can seize property, including cash, from innocent people on the mere suspicion that it was involved in a crime. In many jurisdictions—including Pennsylvania—the agencies conducting the seizures get to keep the proceeds of forfeiture, even if the original owner is never charged with, much less convicted of, a crime.
In other words, District Attorney Whelan is using money taken from his constituents (and anyone visiting Delaware County) to promote his reelection to an office that will allow him to continue taking from his constituents (and anyone visiting Delaware County). Unfortunately, this is hardly the most egregious forfeiture abuse in the Keystone State.
Pennsylvania has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country, earning a D- in the Institute for Justice’s (IJ) “Policing for Profit” report. The commonwealth’s laws invert the proper course of justice by forcing innocent owners of seized property to prove that they did not participate in, give consent to or have knowledge of the criminal activity with which their property was allegedly associated. But law enforcement, like the Delaware County district attorney’s office, need only connect the property somehow to an alleged crime by a preponderance of the evidence, the lowest standard allowed in court.
From 2000 to 2016, Pennsylvania law enforcement agents took more than $150 million through civil forfeiture. IJ is currently suing Philadelphia in a federal class action lawsuit over its forfeiture program, which took in $64 million over a decade. The Philadelphia district attorney’s office used over $25 million of its forfeiture proceeds to pay law enforcement agents, including the salaries of the very prosecutors who brought the forfeiture actions. The rest was a slush fund for law enforcement spending that, as the Philadelphia Weekly put it, “runs the gamut from the mundane to the downright bizarre.”
National attention for the lawsuit challenging Philadelphia’s forfeiture scheme has shed much-needed light on a relatively unknown practice that nets billions every year for law-enforcement agencies nationwide.