Survey: Philly's civil forfeiture program targeted Black residents

·3 min read

Data: Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit; Chart: Axios Visuals

A new survey sheds light on how Philadelphia's civil asset forfeiture program disproportionately targeted Black residents before it was reformed three years ago.

  • The program seized property from a majority of people never found guilty of wrongdoing in the years leading up to 2018, the Institute for Justice found.

Why it matters: Philadelphia was historically a "hotspot" for civil forfeiture, with police and the district attorney's office aggressively seizing cash, cars and homes, University of Pennsylvania legal expert Louis Rulli told Axios.

  • "The people most affected by civil forfeiture were poor, they were communities of color, and they were the most vulnerable in our city, who could least afford to lose their property," Rulli said.

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How it works: Civil forfeiture laws allow police and prosecutors to seize and generate revenue from property they allege is involved in a crime, even if a suspect is never arrested or convicted.

Details: The institute surveyed 407 victims, who were among 30,000 caught up in the city program between 2012-2018.

  • The survey found about one in four people were eventually found guilty of wrongdoing, while 69% had their assets seized through the forfeiture program forever.

  • More than half of the city's forfeitures between 2012-2018 were in predominantly Black, Hispanic and Latino neighborhoods in four North Philadelphia ZIP codes, according to the report. Median incomes there were below $30,000.

Flashback: The Institute for Justice filed the lawsuit that led to the program's reforms approved in 2018.

  • Those reforms officially took effect this past January through a consent decree, said Robert Frommer, senior attorney at the institute.

  • Now, police can no longer seize cash or property worth less than $1,000, and individuals who have their property seized must receive a receipt.

  • The city also set up a $3 million fund to pay people who had their property unfairly seized or never returned. It has sent out $2.2 million in checks, as of last month, Frommer said.

What they're saying: Frommer said the reforms help "stop policing for profit in Philadelphia" and give people ensnared in the system tools to get out.

  • "Philadelphia's forfeiture machine has been largely dismantled, but the threat won't end until Pennsylvania and other states get rid of the profit incentive that fuels the abuses that have happened," he said.

Rulli said the changes to the forfeiture program were "not enough to wholly reform the system, but they go a significant way toward that goal."

  • Yes, but: Rulli warned that a new district attorney could revive some of the city's improper practices because civil forfeiture is lucrative and law enforcement benefits from it.

Of note: Revenue from the city's forfeiture program was $1.5 million in 2020, down from a high of $5 million in 2013, according to Frommer.

What to watch: The Institute for Justice is monitoring the city's reforms via the consent decree through the early part of 2022.

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