The Philadelphia Steal Mill: This Week’s Civil Forfeiture Outrages, Part 2

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The Institute for Justice has just published an extraordinary report on civil forfeiture. For many years, the City of Philadelphia ran what is best described as a forfeiture machine—a systematic program that seized millions of dollars from tens of thousands of people, many of whom were never found to have committed any crime. After years of court battles, the Institute secured a consent decree that ended many of the city’s most objectionable forfeiture practices, secured $3 million in restitution to forfeiture victims, and made the city provide extensive data on actual forfeiture practices to its researchers. The result is a comprehensive portrait of the real world of seizure and forfeiture.

The whole report is well worth reading, but here are some summary quotes from its findings:

  • “Forfeiture victims tended to come from some of the city’s most disadvantaged communities— those often least able to fight city hall. Two-thirds of respondents were Black, 63% earned less than $50,000 annually and 18% were unemployed. Compared to Philadelphians overall, respondents were more often minority and lower income. They also had less education and higher rates of unemployment. Geographically, forfeitures were clustered in predominantly minority and low-income areas, with just four ZIP codes in the city’s center accounting for 57%.
  • Philadelphia police frequently seized small amounts of cash and low-value cars—hardly the stuff of the big-time drug criminals that forfeiture purportedly targets. Cash was the most common property seized, from nearly two-thirds of respondents, often alongside a car or other personal property. Seizure amounts were very small: The median value of a single item seized was just $600. Police seized as little as $25 in cash, a cologne gift set worth $20 and a pair of crutches.
  • Philadelphia regularly forfeited money and property from people not proven guilty of doing anything wrong. Only about 1 in 4 respondents was found or pleaded guilty to any wrongdoing. Yet 69% saw their seized property forfeited forever.
  • Philadelphia’s forfeiture program made it extremely difficult to get seized property back. Simply getting a receipt meant people were eight times more likely to win their property back, but more than half of respondents—58%—never received one. Philadelphia typically required numerous court appearances to fight a forfeiture, and the working poor often gave up: Victims earning less than $50,000 were almost 70% less likely to even try, while the employed were 53% less likely.
  • Fighting forfeiture was especially difficult without an advanced education: Those without a college degree were 82% less likely to get their property back. “Innocent owner” claims rarely succeeded: People whose property was seized while in someone else’s possession were 92% less likely to win their property back compared to people who had property seized from them directly. If people did beat the forfeiture, it took an average of nine months to get their property back.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote that the man who seeks to understand the law of his time might study codes and statutes, “but the man of the future is the man of statistics.” The Institute for Justice’s report is notable not only for its detailed portrait of Philadelphia’s forfeiture program, but also for its comprehensive nature: it provides a graphic account of the many respects in which government agents who are sworn to protect people’s rights systematically deprived Philadelphians of theirs.