Philadelphia's police captain
Philadelphia Police Captain John Ryan Matt Rourke/AP

For decades, the city’s police department confiscated the property and cash of criminal suspects, even without convicting them of a crime, and used those seized assets to pay their salaries and buy equipment. No more.

The era of profit-driven policing may be drawing to a close in Philadelphia now that the city has agreed to considerably scale back its policies on when and how police can seize private property from civilians. Up until now, Philadelphia police could confiscate a person’s cash, car, or house—evicting people with little notice—if there was suspicion that the person might be associated with a crime.

Called civil asset forfeiture and dubbed by opponents as “policing for profit”, the practice was a mechanism for padding police coffers and salaries with the funds generated from these confiscations. Meanwhile, the person whose assets were taken would have to prove they were innocent of whatever crime they were suspected of to begin a cumbersome process for reclaiming their property. In one case, Norys Hernandez almost lost her home to police after they arrested her nephew on a drug violation that she was unaware of.

Under a new consent decree agreement announced Tuesday, police and prosecutors can only seize people’s assets under a very limited set of circumstances— mainly if they can prove that it is evidence for a major criminal case—but those seized assets cannot be used to pay for police salaries or expenses. Also under the new agreement, the victims of past civil asset forfeiture abuse are entitled to reparations.

The consent decree is the result of a lawsuit filed four years ago by the criminal justice reform organization Institute for Justice against the city of Philadelphia to dismantle its civil asset forfeiture laws, which were then considered some of the worst of any U.S. city. Philadelphia was taking advantage of Pennsylvania’s law that allowed law enforcement agencies to keep 100 percent of proceeds and property seized from criminal suspects, even without a conviction. A new state law went into effect last summer that heightens the threshold for police and prosecutors to do that, but it falls far short of the kind of reforms that the city of Philadelphia just agreed to, which include:

  • Police now have to provide a detailed receipt of the property seized to the person they seized it from. The receipt must include instructions on how that person can retrieve their property.  

  • Court forfeiture proceedings papers must be filed within 90 days of a person’s assets being seized or else the assets must be returned. A person can file for immediate return of their property if they depend on it to live or work—a car, for instance, for those who work for Uber or Lyft as their primary job.

  • Whereas before prosecutors controlled court forfeiture hearings, now that control belongs to judges. Prosecutors can no longer threaten taking a person’s property for not making repeated returns to court, and property owners can file for a continuance if they can’t make a hearing.

  • Instead of using seized assets to pay for police salaries or new equipment, funds will now be given to community-based drug rehab programs.

A $3 million fund has been set up to help people recoup what police took from them, and also to compensate them for being wronged. People who submit a qualifying claim in time will receive at least $90 for having their rights violated. All cash and property will be returned to those who never ended up convicted of a crime. If you were convicted of a low-level offense or were a first-time offender, you are eligible to have 75 percent of your property and cash returned to you.

The city had already begun taking measures to reform its civil asset forfeiture policies in 2015, when it agreed that it would no longer take people’s homes without giving them proper notice or allowing them due process. Not only would property owners not be guaranteed a hearing before these reforms kicked in, but they weren’t even guaranteed a lawyer or public defender. Prosecutors justified these takings, and what otherwise might seem like violations of people’s constitutional right to counsel, by suing the property itself rather than suing the person owning the property, which led to bizarre court case titles such as Commonwealth v. 2000 Buick or U.S. v. One 2003 Mercedes Benz CL500 (the federal government is heavy in the civil forfeiture game as well).

Institute for Justice president Scott Bullock called the Philadelphia consent decree “an unprecedented blow against civil forfeiture.”

Civil asset forfeiture is still used widely by police departments across the country, and by federal law enforcement, despite bipartisan calls to end it, and despite multiple lawsuits to stop it in other cities. The U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson police department in Missouri in 2015 found that the police there grossly abused civil forfeiture policies to fund its own budget and even to fund the city’s general budget. A recent study from economics professors at Clemson University and George Mason University found that police officers increase their arrests in cities and counties that are in fiscal distress and where civil asset forfeiture policies are the strongest. Under those conditions, African Americans and Latinos are arrested more often than white people when it comes to drug and DUI violations, which are the kinds of crimes that usually led to police confiscating a suspect’s car and cash.

“Revenue-driven law enforcement may also disparately impact minorities because the logic of revenue maximization can systematically encourage police to focus their efforts on vulnerable groups,” reads the study.

Philadelphia has gone through several bouts of fiscal distress in the past couple of decades, and its civil forfeiture policies have fallen disproportionally on African Americans. According to a 2015 study from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, 71 percent of those whose assets were seized by police without being convicted of a crime were African Americans. Philadelphia’s new city district attorney Larry Krasner has made erasing such racial disparities—and stopping civil asset forfeiture—his priorities.

“For too long, Philadelphia treated its citizens like ATMs, ensnaring thousands of people in a system designed to strip people of their property and their rights,” said Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice and director of its Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse. “No more.”

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