The Supreme Court is considering whether the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states as well as to the federal government. If the SC needs more motivation to curb the abusive process of civil asset forfeiture they need look no further than Philadelphia. In a field filled with outrageous stories of injustice, the situation in Philadelphia where houses have been forfeit stands out.
A forfeiture petition for one property lists one gram of marijuana, a half gram of cocaine and some over-the-counter pills as justification for taking. In one case recently settled in a $3 million class-action lawsuit, Norys Hernandez nearly lost the rowhouse she and her sister owned after police arrested her nephew on drug dealing charges and seized the house. Another family named in the suit fought to save their house from the grip of law enforcement after their son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs outside of it. Of the lawsuit’s four named plaintiffs, three had their houses targeted for seizure after police accused relatives dealing drugs on the property. None of the homeowners were themselves accused of committing a crime.
As families fought to keep homes targeted by the DA, the revenues from the forfeiture sales became a big moneymaker for local law enforcement – netting some $6 million annually in the best years. The proceeds turned into an unregulated budget split between the police and DA. The money made off of the seized homes went to buy wish list items ranging from new submachine guns to custom uniform embroidery.
As if that weren’t enough, sometimes police officers were the buyers of the foreclosed properties! How’s that for demand creates its own supply?
“I am genuinely distressed to learn that the DA’s office permitted police officers to acquire forfeited homes of Philadelphians at public auction,” said University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Lou Rulli. “This disturbing revelation underscores one of many serious flaws in civil forfeiture — law enforcement is able to directly benefit from the actions they take to seize private property, often from lawful homeowners who have done no wrong.”
This story takes the cake:
Biddle recalled an instance, in 2007, when he purchased a property on the 5700 block of Chester Avenue for $21,000. To his surprise, he found a buyer just a few days later who was willing to pay nearly double that amount. He inked the sale.
At the next forfeiture open house, an incensed DA staffer, who by now knew Biddle on sight from his repeat visits to forfeiture auctions, approached him.
“They said, ‘That guy we took the house from? You just sold that to the guy’s mom,’” Biddle recalled. “They were pissed, but they knew I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Records show that it took the District Attorney’s Office three years to seize the property back, through a second forfeiture action filed against the pair.
This is from an excellent investigative report by Ryan Briggs.
Addendum: See also my piece with Makowsky and Stratmann forthcoming in the JLS, To Serve and Collect: The Fiscal and Racial Determinants of Law Enforcement.