ACLU accuses Cumberland County DA Office of abusive property seizures

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PHILADELPHIA, Pa. —  The ACLU of Pennsylvania released a report accusing the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office of making abusive property seizures. The report, Forfeiture in the Shadows, alleges the DA’s Office makes seizures and keeps the property for internal use, including video game systems and games.

The report examines data obtained through Right-to-Know requests relating to forfeiture cases from 2011 to 2013. It found that the proceedings are heavily weighted in the district attorney’s favor. Among its findings:

  • In the fiscal years 2012-13 and 2013-14, the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office collected, on average, over $400,000 in annual forfeiture revenue, which was the equivalent of roughly 10% of its budget.
  • Cumberland County law enforcement has kept large amounts of forfeited equipment–even three gaming systems and four video games–for its own internal use, on the grounds that the property purportedly aids drug enforcement efforts.
  • African-Americans in Cumberland County are eighteen times more likely to be targets of forfeiture than people of other races.
  • Twenty-two percent of forfeitures are brought against people who have not been found guilty of a related crime.
  • In approximately 70 percent of cases, prosecutors get property owners to sign “settlement” agreements, usually without any judicial oversight or attorney representation.
  • Only 4.7 percent of the money seized for forfeiture was ever returned to property owners.
  • Property owners lost every cash-only case involving less than $365.

“The idea that law enforcement officers might be abusing this powerful tool is appalling,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.  “It’s unclear what law enforcement purpose could possibly be served by seizing and keeping gaming consoles and video games.”

Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed says the gaming system seized and forfeited is located in the victim services area and is used by children – often victims of child sexual abuse  – or children of adult victims of crime. “They are certainly not used by police officers or my employees,” said Freed.

“The amount of forfeiture proceeds in the budget of my office is a reflection of the priority we place on making Cumberland County an uncomfortable place for drug dealers to operate,” said Freed. “Our forfeiture proceeds pay for among other things the salary of the head of our Drug Task Force, police overtime, forensic (drug) lab supplies and naloxone to save the lives of overdose victims to name but a few.”

The ACLU says legislation was introduced in both the state Senate and House this summer that would reform the commonwealth’s forfeiture laws. Senate Bill 869 and House Bill 508 would require that individuals be convicted of a crime before their property is forfeited, and would remove the direct financial incentive for law enforcement to pursue forfeiture.

Freed also commented on proposed reform, “There are currently good faith negotiations taking place regarding potential changes to Pennsylvania’s forfeiture laws. As a leader in the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association I have been at the table for those talks. I will continue to participate in this important process along with my colleagues to ensure that we have the tools to keep our communities safe. I will continue to do the right thing for the right reasons – every day.”

A copy of the report, along with other information about civil asset forfeiture, is available at: www.aclupa.org/forfeiture.

The full statement from the District Attorney:

Today the ACLU issued a report to the media and other entities criticizing the civil forfeiture practices of my office. This report was not sent to me despite my office’s lengthy cooperation with this “investigation”. I use the term investigation in quotes because in law enforcement we don’t pre-determine the outcomes of our investigation as the ACLU did here.
I want to be crystal clear about my response: this criticism absolutely confirms that my office is doing an effective job going after drug activity. It is an honor to be singled out by the criminal apologists at the ACLU. I am proud of my record and the hard work of my office. We follow the law of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and do so effectively.
I have not had a chance to review the report in depth and will likely have more to say when I do. However there are important points that need to be made.
First and foremost, as to the misleading headline on the ACLU’s press release: we have in fact seized and forfeited video game systems. The video game systems that were seized and forfeited are kept for use in our victim services area. They are used most often by children who are victims of crime or are the children of adult victims of crime. They are certainly not used by police officers or my employees. If that’s a criticism I don’t understand it. Maybe the ACLU should come in here and watch a victim of child sexual abuse deal with his or her trauma if they disagree. I would have been happy to share this information with the ACLU employees but they did not ask. Why ruin a good headline?
The amount of forfeiture proceeds in the budget of my office is a reflection of the priority we place on making Cumberland County an uncomfortable place for drug dealers to operate. Our forfeiture proceeds pay for among other things the salary of the head of our Drug Task Force, police overtime, forensic (drug) lab supplies and naloxone to save the lives of overdose victims to name but a few.
What the ACLU report does not say is that drug prosecutions and forfeitures are kept completely separate in my office, which is unusual for an office of our size but shows the priority we put on making sure the cases stand or fall on their own merits.
As for calling my practices racist, I am finishing my 10th year as DA. I have been called every name in the book. So I am way past being offended by that. We take our cases as they come. Plain and simple. While there may be societal reasons for the so-called disproportionate representation of African Americans, there are not law enforcement reasons. We attack drug dealers and try to treat addicts. That’s the philosophy. Criminals come in all forms.
There are currently good faith negotiations taking place regarding potential changes to Pennsylvania’s forfeiture laws. As a leader in the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association I have been at the table for those talks. I will continue to participate in this important process along with my colleagues to ensure that we have the tools to keep our communities safe. I will continue to do the right thing for the right reasons – every day.

Cumberland County
Office of the District Attorney
David J. Freed
District Attorney

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