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In Precedent-Setting Decision, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Shines Light on Controversial Forfeiture Records

Ruling allows reporter to request records of successful bidders at public auctions of property forfeited by law enforcement

Harrisburg, Pa.—Today, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court struck a blow for transparency and good government when it ruled that the names of successful bidders at public auctions of property seized and forfeited by law enforcement are public records that must be disclosed. Today’s ruling is a victory for the LNP | LancasterOnline and its reporter, Carter Walker, who sought the records as part of an investigation into the civil forfeiture practices of the Lancaster County District Attorney. In 2019, Carter and LNP teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to defend the requests after then-District Attorney Craig Stedman challenged them in court.

“Today’s ruling is a win for transparency and the right of Pennsylvanians to know what happens when law enforcement takes property,” said IJ Attorney Kirby West. “This victory means Carter and LNP will now be able to shed light on forfeiture practices and hold officials accountable in Lancaster County. And it will allow other members of the media and the public throughout Pennsylvania to request similar records to uncover forfeiture abuses in their own communities.”

After the Lancaster district attorney denied LNP reporter Carter Walker’s request for civil forfeiture records in September 2018, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records said the records should be turned over. But former District Attorney Stedman appealed the decision in court and, although current District Attorney Heather Adams released some requested records upon taking office, she continued to claim that the names of winning auction bidders should not be turned over.

Today’s ruling from the Commonwealth Court rejected that plea for secrecy, with its decision firmly declaring that, “Disclosure of names of successful bidders at public auctions of forfeited items advances the accountability of the law enforcement authorities responsible for the civil forfeiture of property.”

“We’re pleased that Commonwealth Court agrees with LNP | LancasterOnline and the Institute for Justice that these records are a matter of great public interest and ought to be available for inspection by all citizens,” said LNP executive editor Tom Murse. “We look forward to using these public records, once shielded from public view by the former district attorney, to report more thoroughly on how Lancaster County uses civil forfeiture. The court’s ruling is a victory for transparency in government and, thus, a victory for all citizens of Pennsylvania.”

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and it is nowhere needed more than in Pennsylvania. From 2002 to 2018, Pennsylvania law enforcement forfeited $279 million in property. And reports from other counties within the Commonwealth show that law enforcement officers have used their position and inside knowledge to purchase forfeited property sold at auction for their own financial gain. The loose laws surrounding forfeiture in the Commonwealth led IJ to bring a massive class-action to end the practice in Philadelphia. And by allowing the disclosure of the names of successful bidders, today’s ruling from the Commonwealth Court ensures that citizens throughout Pennsylvania will be able to hold law enforcement accountable for similar abuses of power.

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