ARLINGTON, Va.—The Pennsylvania Attorney General announced today that former Lancaster County Drug Task Force Detective John Burkhart pleaded guilty to the theft of approximately $171,000 in forfeiture funds over a period of years. Burkhart’s theft was discovered as the Institute for Justice (IJ) was representing media group LNP | LancasterOnline in a fight over the task force’s forfeiture records.
In 2019, former Lancaster District Attorney Craig Stedman refused to turn over records of forfeiture proceeds and spending despite a ruling from the Office of Open Records concluding that the information was subject to Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law. The DA contested the request in court, likely hoping that the cost of litigation would deter the paper and its reporters. IJ, a non-profit public interest law firm that protects property rights nationwide, successfully defended the information requests, achieving a precedent-setting victory at the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in 2021.
“Today’s guilty plea demonstrates why Pennsylvania should end civil forfeiture,” said IJ Attorney Kirby Thomas West. “This theft was enabled by poor transparency and how the proceeds were being spent. That the Lancaster County Drug Task Force relied on forfeiture to fund its activities created a powerful profit incentive for Burkhart and his fellow officers to seize property.
“In our most recent report on national forfeiture practices, Pennsylvania scored a D-, showing the need for broad reform to protect property rights. The best thing for Pennsylvania lawmakers to do would be to end civil forfeiture and instead properly confiscate ill-gotten gains through a criminal process. Research shows that despite law enforcement claims that civil forfeiture is a crime-fighting tool, eliminating it does not increase crime.”