Lancaster, Pa.—The Lancaster County District Attorney uses civil forfeiture to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and other property each year. Under Pennsylvania law, he is able to spend the proceeds with few restrictions. Yet detailed information about what property is taken and how the proceeds are spent is secret. Now, reporter Carter Walker and the LNP Media Group are teaming up with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit public interest law firm, to fight the district attorney in court and bring this information into the light of day. The case could determine whether district attorneys across the commonwealth have to make information about their forfeiture proceeds available to the public.
“Pennsylvanians deserve an opportunity to shed some light on civil forfeiture,” said IJ attorney Kirby West. “Law enforcement in Pennsylvania is allowed to take property, even when there are no criminal charges, and spend the proceeds on virtually anything they want. The Right to Know Law exists to hold government officials accountable. Carter Walker and the LNP have been fighting tooth and nail for these records for months, but it shouldn’t be so hard.”
LNP reporter Carter Walker filed a request for civil forfeiture records with the district attorney in September 2018 and was denied. Upon appeal, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records concluded that the records were subject to the Commonwealth’s Right to Know Law (RTKL) and ordered the district attorney to make them available. Rather than respect the office’s decision, the district attorney appealed in court, opening what could be a lengthy and expensive battle over the limits of the RTKL.
The Institute for Justice, which has challenged forfeiture abuse in Pennsylvania and nationwide, heard about the district attorney’s stonewalling and agreed to represent Carter and LNP in this case to affirm reporters’ access to government records. IJ will also represent Carter and LNP in regard to an identical request in Berks County.
“Public records are a critical tool in providing our readers with information about how government works,” Walker said. “I’m happy the Institute for Justice has decided to take this case, which involves hundreds of thousands of dollars in government assets spent yearly with minimal information being released to the public.”
According to IJ’s analysis of forfeiture transparency laws across the country, detailed information about civil forfeiture is hard to come by in Pennsylvania. The only forfeiture information made available to the public comes in the form of annual reports from the Commonwealth Attorney General’s office–and even those cannot be viewed without a RTKL request. These reports provide only basic, topline accounts about what property county district attorneys are forfeiting and total amounts of proceeds spent. In other states, law enforcement has spent forfeiture proceeds on everything from margarita machines, to a zamboni, and sometimes even high-end travel to luxury destinations.
“In Lancaster and across Pennsylvania, forfeiture is happening largely in the dark,” said IJ senior research analyst Jennifer McDonald. “At a minimum, agencies should have to publicly report how they spend forfeiture proceeds.”
Pennsylvania received a D- in IJ’s nationwide survey of forfeiture laws, Policing for Profit, for its poor protections for property owners.This isn’t the first time IJ has tangled in court with civil forfeiture in Pennsylvania. IJ recently announced the pending settlement of a landmark class action lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia over its forfeiture practices. There, the city was taking cash, cars and even homes from residents without charging them with crimes. Public records requests from reporters and IJ helped uncover this abuse and prompt reforms.
IJ litigators and researchers frequently file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and appeal improper denials in court. In 2011, an IJ suit in Georgia forced agencies to provide civil forfeiture reports. In 2018, IJ won a FOIA challenge at the Illinois Supreme Court requiring the state to provide information about the regulation of cosmetologists. IJ is also currently suing the Internal Revenue Service and Customs and Border Protection for access to forfeiture information.