By Kirby Thomas West
Every year, the Lancaster County District Attorney’s office uses forfeiture to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and other property from Pennsylvania citizens. Under Pennsylvania law, the DA’s office is able to spend the proceeds with few restrictions and almost no public oversight. Carter Walker, a young reporter for LNP Media Group in Lancaster, is working hard to change that.
As part of his investigative reporting, Carter filed a public records request with the local DA’s office under Pennsylvania’s “Right-to-Know” law, asking for information about what kind of property the DA is taking through forfeiture and how the office is spending the proceeds.
But when the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ordered the DA to make this information available, he opted to fight Carter’s request for information in court. That’s when IJ stepped in, teaming up with Carter to ensure that district attorneys across Pennsylvania must make information about their forfeiture practices and the property they confiscate under them available to the public.
Local reporting, like Carter’s and LNP’s, plays a crucial role in the national fight for forfeiture reform by giving the public—and public interest litigators—the information they need to hold public officials accountable. This information often comes from public records requests made under state or federal transparency laws. By analyzing records of individual forfeitures and expenditures of forfeiture proceeds, reporters can provide a snapshot of how the system operates and shine a light on potential wrongdoing.
IJ wrote the book—literally—on how to apply public records requests to the world of forfeiture. We relied heavily on public records requests to produce our comprehensive forfeiture report, Policing for Profit, which drove forfeiture from obscurity to a focal point of national outrage and has been cited hundreds of times in local and national media outlets, as well as in legal briefs, legislative testimony, political speeches, and even court opinions. It is vital that as many reporters as possible have open access to forfeiture information so they can add to the national conversation IJ started. Their reporting also offers a valuable source of leads for potential IJ litigation.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” As IJ’s friends and supporters know, the world of forfeiture could use lots of disinfecting. By joining forces with Carter and LNP, IJ will help shed light on forfeiture in Pennsylvania. In the process, we will advocate for the right of all Pennsylvanians to know how their government is taking property and how it spends the proceeds.
Kirby Thomas West is an IJ attorney.