Cobbs Creek woman’s story, Philly home seizures reasons reform is needed now

HARRISBURG, Oct. 21, 2015 — State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams’ work to reform the Pennsylvania statute that allows law enforcement officials to seize property in some cases has taken a significant step forward.

The senator, who has met with faith and community leaders and has spoken for the need for civil asset reform, submitted testimony Tuesday on a bill that would deliver those changes.

“I already had heard at least a dozen stories of innocent property owners whose assets were seized despite never being charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime,” Sen. Williams said in his remarks. “The majority of these victims were low-income minorities from Philadelphia – my constituents.

One victim of wrongful property seizure lives in Cobbs Creek.

“On April 3, 2013, Elizabeth Young, a 69-year-old widow, was ordered to surrender her house and van, her only source of transportation, after her adult son and another man were caught selling drugs on the property. She was not charged with a crime, but the DA said that she had knowledge of the drug dealing and ‘tacitly consented’ to it by not putting a stop to it.

“She eventually gained her property back after her pro bono defense team from Ballard Spahr argued successfully to PA’s Superior Court that the forfeiture of her sole residence constituted an excessive fine prohibited under the Eighth Amendment. Again, she was never arrested or convicted of any crime, yet she had to undergo two years of court battles to regain custody of her sole residence and source of transportation,” Williams said.

The senator said Young’s case triggered his own investigation into civil asset forfeiture.

“I was shocked to learn that … Philadelphia took in $5 million in forfeited property, $3.5 million of that cash. Even more shocking was the staggering amount of houses seized under Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture program: between 2002 and 2012, Philadelphia forfeited 1,172 real estate properties, while the 66 other counties in Pennsylvania forfeited 56 real properties combined,” Sen. Williams wrote.

Civil forfeiture helps law enforcement agencies cripple drug cartels but the senators have been arguing that the current law has been misapplied, resulting in questionable property seizures before an accused person has been convicted of a crime.

Between 2010 and 2014, a study by Lancaster Online found that Philadelphia seized $18.8 million through civil asset forfeiture, which was nearly five times more than Montgomery County.

Senate Bill 869, on which the Senate Judiciary Committee held its hearing Tuesday, would require a property owner to be convicted of a crime before a district attorney could seize money, conveyances or real property.

“The district attorneys I’ve spoken to have lauded the civil forfeiture program as vital to drug-fighting efforts, as they depend on the proceeds to fund such operations. I recognize the value and wisdom in hitting drug cartels where it hurts – their wallet. But Elizabeth Young was not a drug cartel boss, nor were many of the other men and women I’ve read about in Philadelphia.

“Certainly, no citizen should have his or her property, be it cash, car or home, seized from under them without a commensurate finding of guilt for an underlying offense. It’s not right, and Senate Bill 869 will ensure a more fair and equitable process for all Pennsylvanians.”


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