Local Governments Increase Revenue by Seizing Property Belonging to those not Charged with Crimes

Tuesday, September 09, 2014
Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams

Using a program developed to combat drug trafficking, local governments across the United States have boosted their budgets with monies and property forfeited by individuals who were never charged with breaking the law.


An investigation by The Washington Post found cities and counties have pocketed more than $1.7 billion since 2001 through the federal Equitable Sharing Program, which encourages local police to stop citizens and seize their possessions, even if they haven’t been proven to having done anything wrong.


“Asset forfeiture is an extraordinarily powerful law enforcement tool that allows the government to take cash and property without pressing criminal charges and then requires the owners to prove their possessions were legally acquired,” the Post’s Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow Jr., Steven Rich wrote.


The $1.7 billion collected by local governments was part of a $2.5 billion total which came from “61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments.” The remaining $800 million was split among the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies.


Philadelphia has one of the worst such records. It seizes cash and property worth about $6 million each year and since 2002 has generated about $64 million in forfeitures, according to Forbes. Over that period, 1,172 pieces of real estate were seized by the city. The other jurisdictions in Pennsylvania combined seized only 56 real properties over that period.


Federal law is supposed to prevent local governments from using seized cash from supplementing budgets for law enforcement. Nevertheless, the newspaper found nearly 300 departments that had “seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.”


Those on the wrong end of these seizures have had to spend considerable money on court fights to get their property and possessions back. The Post found that only a sixth of the seizures were challenged, but 41% of those who went to court got money returned. In many cases, the plaintiffs had to agree not to sue the law enforcement agency to recover.

In Philadelphia, those seeking restitution are forced to report to a “courtroom,” run by not a judge but a prosecutor, repeatedly in order to have a chance to have their property returned. And since the hearings are in civil court, plaintiffs don’t have a right to a court-appointed attorney.


The federal program was developed decades ago to assist police in breaking up drug cartels and capturing the luxuries of kingpins. Now, it’s being used for the wrong reasons, critics say.


“Those laws were meant to take a guy out for selling $1 million in cocaine or who was trying to launder large amounts of money,” Mark Overton, police chief in Bal Harbour, Florida, who ran a federal drug task force in South Florida, told The Post. “It was never meant for a street cop to take a few thousand dollars from a driver by the side of the road.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Stop and Seize (by Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow Jr., Steven Rich, Washington Post)

Federal Lawsuit Challenges Philadelphia’s Civil Forfeiture Machine (End Civil Forfeiture)

Philadelphia Earns Millions by Seizing Cash and Homes from People Never Charged with a Crime (by Nick Sibilla, Forbes)

Seizing Citizens’ Property as a Revenue Source for Law Enforcement (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


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