Police in Philadelphia Stealing Houses

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.


The link to the report is broken.

Likely : http://planphilly.com/articles/2018/12/07/inside-the-philadelphia-da-s-side-hustle-selling-seized-homes-to-speculators-and-cops

The ONLY correct solution is to end ALL civil asset forfeiture and declare it unconstitutional. Let the courts determine guilt and punishment not the police or politicians.

Legalized robbery!

I saw "Biddle" and "Philadelphia" and "bank" and "foreclosure" and the first thing that came into my mind was the Second Bank of the United States. Who else had this thought?

Bonus trivia: I almost bought a book for $1 used here in the Philippines by a Canadian who went to jail rather than quit going to farm foreclosure sales and buying distressed farms for $1, then selling them back to the original owner for the same $1. This modern Robin Hood of Canada had a gang of farmers who made it known through body language that nobody was to bid against this guy at foreclosure auctions. He went to jail, the sheriffs tried to rescind the sales, but last I read, in a 2 minute read, he prevailed.


The perverse incentives convert law enforcement into a fencing racket. The county to the south of where I have a home in the low country is well known for stopping "suspicious" cars and trucks traveling on I-95, arresting the occupants for some offense, and seizing the car or truck and its contents. These are local law enforcement officers, not the state police (which is the agency charged with patrolling the interstate highways). The county has no doubt determined that patrolling the interstate is more profitable than patrolling the streets. It's rare that I travel through that county on the interstate that I don't see one or two stopped vehicles, the occupants standing to the side, while the local police search the vehicle. As to what constitutes a "suspicious" vehicle, well, the occupants standing to the side more often than not are identifiable by their race or ethnicity.

For shame, rayward! How can you criticize the police for engaging in pattern recognition? Everyone knows that certain ethnicities are more likely to be carrying large amounts of cash that can be readily forfeited, and small amounts of drugs to serve as a pretext.

Well score one for pattern recognition. Find the group that is 1. more like to have contraband, and 2. less like to fight them in court about it. Even thieves can figure out who the easy marks are.

In Lectures on Jurisprudence, Adam Smith was pleased to tell his students:

Nowadays, the smallest property is as secure as the greatest; a single acre is as securely possessed by its owner as 10000...

Shame on America, where everything is for sale, and everything has been sold, including the police...

>Shame on America, where everything is for sale, and everything has been sold

Hang on. Those are mutually exclusive by definition. Which is it?

TPM What? You think you can't sell a thing more than once?

The Scottish Convention of Estates, in 1689: "the King ... [did] invade the fundamental constitution of this Kingdom and altered it from a legal limited monarchy, to an arbitrary despotic power".

That's about the size of it.

Did that refer to James II or William?

James VII. He had been behaving too much like an modern American police force.

Ah, okay. I thought maybe it was some angry Jacobites maligning the new guy.

As President Captain Bolsonaro pointed out, people who don't like to be punished should not commit crimes.

And people who don't like to be accused of committing crimes should have shown Bolsonaro and his supporters a little more love.

The point I am making is that commiting crimes is wrong. As President Captain Bolsonaro says, "human rights for righteous people".

So your son smokes a joint, and the police take your house. I guess that whole "sins of the father" adage is being flipped around.

It is not so simple. Parents are legally responsible for their children. Who will compensate society if not them? Children do not make lots of money. Also, cocaine is a very dangerous product.

"human rights for righteous people"

Of course, this is chiffre for "human rights only for people who are loyal to me, everyone else gets tortured".

"Parents are legally responsible for their children. Who will compensate society if not them?"

Solve for antinatalist equilibrium. Or perhaps just anti-housing investment equilibriiium.

"Children do not make lots of money."

Because they're banned from earning it. I'd pay decent money for child prostitution.

"Also, cocaine is a very dangerous product."

Don't buy it then.

Excessive punishment is as wrong or even worse than committing the crime. Two wrongs don't make right. And, btw, it's seriously questionable whether breaking the law is wrong when the law is wrong.

I've never understood how this could be constitutional.

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

"nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law"

And the full process law prescribes for forfeiture has been applied. Also emergency situations allow for the strealining of the legal process. Korematsu v. United States made it clear that some individual rights can be suspended if the risk for the collective body, particularly in times of war, is too high. Must I remember you there is, in America, a war against drugs ongoing, that gangs rule a good chunck of the USA and that opiod addiction is swallowing whole cities?

When will these rules be applied to the War on Poverty, I ask?


It is different.

I'm sure the police department keeps a special "Due Process of Law" rubber stamp around so they can stamp it on documents justifying their theft of peoples' property. At any rate, it's a good thing we had these no-trial property seizures to help fight the war on drugs. Otherwise, we'd probably have some kind of terrible opiod addiction and overdose problem going on by now.

The problem surely would have been worse. Incentives matter. Bandits must know they will be treated in a fair, but harsh way.

The treatment being discussed is not in the least bit fair.

Yes, it is. The punishment is proportional to the crime.

It is exactly the opposite of proportional. Either you haven't read the article or you cannot read.

Drugs are terrible problem for our society. The situation must be dealed in a careful and intense way.

That may be true, but taking someone's house because their nephew was smoking weed outside is not the least bit careful.

You wouldn't murder the nephew for smoking marijuana would you? If not then you understand proportionality, and that some punishments are too harsh. If so, then you are not a serious person and probably need to see a psychiatrist.

It was not just the nephew. It was the co-owner's son. The point is that, as President Captain Bolsonaro pointed out, it is better to punish the guilty than allow the innocent to suffer from the consequences of crime. Who spares the rod, dooms the lamb.

You ignore the question. Which means you are either stupid or dishonest. Is it ok to punish the guilty pot smoker with death, to spare the 'innocent' the consequences of that crime? If you think so, you are insane, if not you understand there are limits to punishment.

No one has been shot. Property has been forfeited by the guilty parts. It is very different.

You understand limits. It is absurd to shoot someone for this crime. That means you understand there are limits. However property was not forfeited by the guilty parties, but by their families. So it is also absurd.

No, it is not. The property was forefeited by the legal responsable for the criminal and the place where the crimes most probably happened.

Bueno puento
when we first started reading about civil forfeiture many years ago
the sociology dept. rationalized this creepy sociology behavior
with a stretchy/sketchy new interpretation of the RICO1 laws

1Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as the RICO Act or simply RICO, is a United States federal law that provides for extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization.

I believe the legal rationale is that civil forfeiture is a civil, rather than criminal, procedure between the police and the *property*, rather than the property owner. The property is suspected of being involved in wrongdoing, and property does not have constitutional rights. Also, since it's a civil matter, the burden of proof is preponderance of the evidence rather than beyond a reasonable doubt. So, the property owner must prove that his property was not involved in wrongdoing rather than the state needing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the property owner committed a crime.

that is the sorta legal rationale that is pretty easy to abuse.
take a criminal matter
rebrand it as a civil matter and
then take the property away
from a property owner who was not even charged
or convicted with a crime

The interesting bit about civil asset forfeiture is that if someone is pushing to curtail it heavily is "government loving liberals", and the people that like it the most are in the Republican party.

This kind of abuses should be outlawed in 7 minutes in any country to the right of Soviet Russia.

That's the exact opposite of my observations on this issue.

It cuts across party lines. Radley Balko is no one's idea of a "government loving liberal"

this toxic sociology narrative is from Philadelphia (mostly democrats)
stuff this stupid almost always starts with ivy league lawyers who don't
understand the constitution

The people pushing to end it most vigorously are the Institute for Justice. But if you look at the amicus briefs in their Timbs case, it has groups from every single area of life opposing it, from liberals to progressives to libertarians to religious conservatives to corporate conservatives. No one likes it, except for cops and machine politicians who use it (a certain kind of centrist). However, in most areas whoever is in power tends to like it and use it; that's Democrats in Democratic Party voting areas, and Republicans in Republican Party voting areas.

Albuquerque fought heavily trying to undermine New Mexico's ban on asset forfeiture.

Where IS a Northern Poverty Law Center when you need one?

If they're like the southern unit, they are trying to figure out how to get their cut.

So much trouble would be saved if the exclusive use that funds from asset forfeiture could be put to was to fund the public defender's office.

Is this a practice the police/prosecutors only thought up in the last couple decades?

I remember first reading about civil forfeiture in the 1980s. So it's been around a long time, but maybe it's become more common in recent years.

I am still as aghast as I was then: you don't have to convicted of a crime to lose your property. You don't even have to be *accused* of a crime. The police can simply confiscate your property if they "suspect" it was involved in a crime.

Wikipedia has what seems to be a useful history of civil forfeiture:

I thank Alex for occasionally bringing up the topic of civil forfeiture and wish that MR and other blogs and columnists mentioned it more often. This should be an issue that conservatives, liberals, and libertarians should all be able to rally around.

That doesn't mean that all civil forfeiture should be banned. But as with eminent domain, it needs to be heavily circumscribed and overseen, and as some of the comments have said needs to have incentive compatibility. E.g. allowing police departments to keep the revenue and allowing police officers to take possession of the property is clearly unwise.

The cases on this stuff are centuries old. Like, The Palmyra, 12 Wheat. 1 (1827), which unfolded like this:

1. The king of Spain takes a dude's ship to raid in America's waters

2. America captures the ship.

3. Ship's owner says, "Dude, that's my ship. Give it back."

4. America says, "Nah."

5. Ship's owner goes to court, arguing, "The bad guys took my ship. I didn't have anything to do with all that stuff. Give it back."

6. Supreme court eventually says, "Yeah, no. It's your ship that did the bad thing, and America's taking the ship prevents it from doing bad things again, so it doesn't matter whether you're innocent."

7. America gets to keep the ship.


Our results show how revenue-driven law enforcement can distort police behavior

It's not a distortion of police behavior. It is police behavior.

In Philadelphia:

1) You don't need a license to own a gun.
2) Not all gun sales require background checks.
3) There are no firearm registries.
4) There are no bans against assault rifles, which I presume means military style carbines.

Despite all this, people are still having their houses stolen by law enforcement officials in Philadelphia. So what good is gun ownership doing? How is it a defense against tyranny? The United States isn't doing a good job of convincing other countries they should lighten up on gun control given these abuses of power continue.

The term "assault rifle" isn't clearly defined. It's basically whatever the manufacturer calls it, and whatever the DA can pin on a person. Yes, there are guidelines, but they're vague and open to interpretation.

As for gun ownership, I've always hated the emphasis on revolution as a justification for it. The reality is that many people in the USA own guns to hunt for food. I know many people who obtain a substantial portion of their meat via hunting--one person bragged that he hadn't bought meat in two years, for example. In some cases, these are poor people; hunting as a subsistence strategy was extremely common as little as a generation ago in some areas (see the Firefox books). This is particularly true in more rural areas of Pennsylvania. In some cases, it's because the person enjoys it. The one I mentioned earlier lives a very comfortable middle-class lifestyle. But the result is the same--guns are as much a part of their lives as stoves are.

Second, look at the people getting their homes and cars stolen. Black men carrying guns--even legally--have a tendency to get arrested or shot.

Yeah, I grew up hearing about how widespread gun ownership was what prevented a police state. But no-knock midnight raids and no-trial property seizures seem to work out just fine in our country, despite the high gun ownership rate. That's not quite the same as a police state, but it's certainly the sort of police behavior you'd think would be dissuaded by armed citizens.

But those people are criminals, right?

I heard about it too, and laughed. I mean, we live in a country with nuclear weapons scattered all over it. The USA has fighter jets, bombers, MOABs, M1-80s, grenades, and all sorts of other ways to mess up your day. The idea that we're somehow going to take them on with handguns, rifles, and shotguns is....laughable. We can put up a descent resistance, sure, but we WILL lose. It's just a question of whether we'll realize that before or after they vaporize a few cities.

The real defense against a police state has historically been integrating the police into the communities, in my opinion. It's really hard to act like a jackbooted thug when the person you're hurting is your cousin, or your neighbor, or someone your kids play with.

That's one thing that makes turning the police into cash cows so dangerous: it removes police from the community. I'd say 90% of the average person's interaction with police is negative at this point--tickets, citations, or threats thereof. This creates an "Us vs Them" mentality--they're apart from the community. So it's not a big deal if they hurt it. To them, "the community" starts to mean "the police department". And once that happens, human nature takes over and there's nothing you can't convince them to do to the population.

The town I live in recognized that and is combatting it. They have specific events where the police interact with the community, and the department goes out of its way to be friendly to people--offering help to drivers along the side of the road, opening doors for women (especially ones with small kids), even just being polite and chatting for five minutes while pumping gas. It helps.

That’s not the point. This is a terrible reading of military history, even restricted to the US.

The militia sure as hell didn’t win the Revolutionary War, but without it the war would never have been possible in the first place.

An armed populace increases the cost of increasing tyranny. Because now you have to napalm/bomb your own people. An armed populace mixes in with everyone else, forcing the imposing authority to blatantly kill civilians to restrict their own casualties.

Especially in a war where the stronger party adheres to western values, usually mixing in with the population is enough to win in the long term by itself.

And that’s with Afghans, Iraqis, and Vietnamese. Imagine when it’s Americans carpet bombing Dallas. Not going to happen.

Or remember Burke, speaking in Parliament during the revolutionary war about how England was making a grave mistake.

Not to mention the national guard of whatever seceding states would not side with the feds. And half of the military would melt away to avoid killing their own people.

You’re thinking in slogans, not game theory. Demand curves and prices.

"An armed populace increases the cost of increasing tyranny. Because now you have to napalm/bomb your own people."

I acknowledge that. However, once you separate the police and populace (and I've seen that process happen), you're NOT napalming your own people. You're napalming the Bad Guys. And that's obviously a good thing.

Yeah, I get the cost argument. But you are assuming that tyranny needs to be violent. It doesn't. To people enacting tyranny, it's simply logical. That's how they want to live, so they don't see it as tyranny. And after a while, it's all anyone knows, so they are unlikely to object. By the time the populace revolts, you've so firmly established the social divide--the rulers and the ruled--that "They're bombing their own people" doesn't make sense. See Russia, WWII Germany, China, Rome, the Huns, the slave-owning South, Jim Crow, India's caste system, feudalism, religious persecution, the entire Classical and Ancient world....

Didn't a congressman tweet out something this stupid lately? He's been mocked for the past few weeks, rightly so. No, the government is not going to nuke, or just bomb any of its own cities. If an order comes down for any kind of mass destruction, so where high up in the chain, an officer takes a bullet from the guy below him and it all ends. Citizens do use guns to protect themselves all the time. Sometimes even from the police. There have been guys who killed cops during no-knock raids on wrong addresses than never got charged.

We don't care to convince other countries to lighten their gun laws. Do as you please. You might consider it though when you get invaded by China. And this is off topic.

Fucking Australian shitposters, IP range ban when?

I think it's hilarious that Australians think we care about their laws.

Thank you for the interesting comments.

And the uninteresting ones.

There may not be a god but there is a Satan.

The Philly DA's office has been in Democratic hands since 1991. Interesting to consider that it's likely taking these actions disproportionately against its own voters (who are of course also downtrodden, under-privileged, and so forth).

Thank you, Alex, for pushing this issue; needs to be more widely known.

And the Marginal Revolution commentariat found Alice Goffman's depictions of Philly police practices fictional.

Good point.

The contrast between this transparent and thoroughly documented study and the memoir for which Goffman destroyed all her notes is night and day. There are ludicrous claims out there that Goffman has been "mostly verified," but these mean nothing more than that someone has confirmed that she was in West Philadelphia for some period of time. Nothing Goffman said about police conduct has been corroborated in the years since she was published.

I don't really see how that final anecdote about the previous owner's mom buying the house back at a 2x markup from the officer who purchased it in the auction is particularly damning (except that the officer should not have been allowed to participate in the auction). The DA being angry at the officer suggests that the DA's motives were about punishing the genuinely criminal previous owner; if the DA was mostly concerned about the revenue, the DA would not have really cared that the house was sold back to the family.

Punishments are supposed to be imposed by a judge after a conviction is made.

In a recent related bout, it's the USA versus a 2.11 Carat Diamond Ring


I'm taking odds on the latter; but I do wonder who it is that is representing that diamond ring?

The main question is whether the case will be won by the officially sanctioned criminal or the freelance one.

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