Pennsylvania state capitol Credit: Harvey Barrison/Flickr

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reversing Obama-era regulations related to controversial asset forfeiture practices, but his moves likely can’t touch Pennsylvania thanks to legislation signed into law just 28 days ago.

Last week, Sessions announced the Department of Justice is reviving its “Equitable Sharing Program,” a process sometimes called “adoptive forfeiture” in which state and local law enforcement agencies can seize assets from individuals — even without first bringing criminal charges — and then transfer them to the federal government’s control. Some say this allows agencies to circumvent state laws limiting asset forfeiture.

“This will make us more effective at bankrupting organized criminals and at safeguarding the property of law-abiding Americans,” Sessions said in remarks to law enforcement officials.

The controversial move to revive the program — which was limited under former Attorney General Eric Holder — has already drawn bipartisan criticism. Civil asset forfeiture, the process law enforcement officials use to seize property they believe came from or aided in criminal activity, has long been under scrutiny, particularly in Philadelphia. Between 2002 and 2013, Philadelphia law enforcement officials took in more than $69 million, which includes 1,200 houses and 3,400 vehicles.

And though Pennsylvania was once graded a D-minus in terms of its rules related to civil asset forfeiture, the state now looks progressive compared to the rest of the nation: Reform legislation signed into law at the end of June means Sessions’ most recent policy change related to civil asset forfeiture won’t matter in Pennsylvania.

Sen. Mike Folmer, a Lebanon County Republican who was the prime sponsor of the legislation signed into law last month, was particularly “prescient in his crafting of that legislation,” according to Jenna Moll, deputy director of the D.C.-based Justice Action Network, an organization that advocates for reforms. Folmer wasn’t available this week for comment.

Moll said Folmer’s legislation specifically prohibits referring forfeitures to the federal government specifically for the purpose of an “adoptive forfeiture.” That does not include any sort of joint task force that involves both federal and state or local law enforcement agencies working together.

“The bill certainly will limit the impact, and Pennsylvania is in a better position than most states on these issues,” Moll said. “Very few states have such a prohibition like that on equitable sharing.”

Pennsylvania’s new civil asset forfeiture reform bill passed the Senate in April with bipartisan support in a 39 to 10 vote. The 10 “no” votes came from Democrats who believed the bill didn’t go far enough to impose additional regulations on asset forfeiture, namely a requirement that asset forfeiture can take place only after a criminal conviction. The bill then passed the state House unanimously.

In addition to prohibiting law enforcement agencies from referring assets to the federal government to skirt state regulations, the civil asset forfeiture reform law that’s now in place also:

  1. Changes the burden of proof for prosecutors justifying turning property seizures into forfeitures from a preponderance of the evidence to “clear and convincing” evidence.
  2. Gives people the chance to get their seized property back by showing a hardship.
  3. Makes it so that law enforcement officials can’t evict someone before a forfeiture hearing without clearly demonstrating to a judge that criminal activity is ongoing in the home.

Moll said Folmer’s legislation was “an excellent step forward and took a lot of hard work, but it is just the first step.” In addition to that bill, the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that police must be able to demonstrate that a person actually consented to taking part in illegal activity before they seize their assets.

A 2015 poll conducted by the Justice Action Network found that eight in 10 Pennsylvanians supported reforms to civil asset forfeiture.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.