Pennsylvania has terrible civil forfeiture laws. The government can civilly forfeit property by a preponderance of the evidence showing that the property is related to a crime and subject to forfeiture, a standard significantly lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard required for a criminal conviction. And property owners, not the government, bear the burden of proof in innocent owner claims, making property owners effectively guilty until proven innocent.Worse still, all of the money seized by law enforcement agencies and forfeited ultimately makes its way back into their hands. The money is first distributed to the district attorney and state Attorney General, and, under the law, they must use it for enforcement of drug laws. Pennsylvania law enforcement officials take advantage of the commonwealth’s broad forfeiture laws. In just a three-year period (2000-2002), more than $20.2 million in currency, vehicles, real estate and other property was forfeited.A 1992 case illustrates the lengths to which Pennsylvania law enforcement is willing to go to seize and forfeit citizens’ property. Mattia and Marjorie Lonardo owned Shorty’s Café in a “drug infested area” of Allentown, Pa. Aware that their café was being used for drug sales, they took significant steps to fight back. According to the appellate court:
Mr. Lonardo made it known to his patrons that he would notify the police if he saw or suspected the possession of drugs[.] On his own initiative, Mr. Lonardo reported illegal activities to the police at least seven times, and police offers admitted at hearing that at least two raids were initiated by Mr. Londardo’s reports.
At times Mr. Lonardo called the police anonymously in fear of his life, instructed his employees to call the police whenever they saw patrons with drugs and ordered patrons to leave the bar when they were observed with drugs. Also, he identified a suspect and cooperated with police searches at the raids, discussed drugs and loitering problems with the police captain and followed his instruction by posting signs on all the windows.
Mr. Lonardo received threats against himself and family and was injured when glass was thrown at him because he refused to acquiesce in drug activities at the cage. He also sustained damages to the property due to this policy toward patrons dealing or possessing drugs.
The police seized Mr. Lonardo’s café, and a trial court ordered it forfeited. The Lonardos were not themselves charged with any violation of the Pennsylvania Controlled Substances Act. Nonetheless, the trial court concluded—after the testimony of 24 police officers—that the property was used in drug-related activity and the Lonardos did not “reasonably disclaim . . . [“lack of knowledge of the drug related activity”].”
On appeal, the state defended the holding—arguing that property could be seized if the owner had knowledge of drug activity, even if the owner did not consent to it. Fortunately, the appellate court overturned the trial court, concluding that the Lonardos “did all that could reasonably be expected of them to prevent the illegal use of their property[.]”
1 Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Gordon Street, 607 A.2d 839, 840-841 (Pa. 2 Commw. Ct. 1992).
2 Id. at 846.
3 Id. at 841.
5 Id. at 843.
6 Id. at 846.
Forfeitures as Reported to LEMAS (Drug-related only)
Assets Forfeited per
Law Enforcement Agency
Equitable Sharing Proceeds from the Assets Forfeiture Fund (AFF)
Proceeds Returned to State
Average per Year
Freedom of Information Data
Reports of forfeitures by law enforcement agencies
Arlington, Va.—It’s called policing for profit and it’s happening all across America. Pennsylvania’s laws and practices make it among the worst abusers in the nation. Under a practice called “civil forfeiture,” police and prosecutors’ offices seize private property—often without ever charging the owners with a crime, much less convicting them of one—then keep or sell…