Pressure mounting against Pennsylvania’s civil asset forfeiture law

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HARRISBURG, Pa. — Retired Maj. Neill Franklin oversaw more than a dozen drug task forces that used civil asset forfeiture laws to seize millions in property.

But by the late 1990s even Franklin, who worked for the Maryland State Police, began to think something was wrong with the system.

Franklin was reviewing paperwork from a case on the Eastern Shore. Police had seized a man’s car, and it was suspected the car was used in drug deals. But the owner was never charged with a crime.

The man wanted the car back so he could get to work, and police agreed to return it — as long he paid storage and administrative fees of a couple hundred dollars, says Franklin. It cost nothing  to park the car on a police lot.“Basically, we held this guy’s car for ransom and then made money off of giving it back,” said Franklin, who is now fighting for national civil asset reform as executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which opposes the War on Drugs.

Franklin visited the Pennsylvania state Capitol on Wednesday – about 20 years after he first saw the problems with civil asset forfeiture – and joined a diverse coalition calling on lawmakers here to reform the system.

While law enforcement officials argue civil asset forfeiture is a vital tool to strip drug dealers and other lawbreakers of the resources they use to commit crimes, the practice has come under increasing scrutiny across the country. Critics argue it’s an affront to the constitutional right to due process and that it’s used to pad law enforcement budgets.

Pennsylvania law allows police to seize cash, cars and even homes if they believe they’re connected to a crime. Prosecutors can file for the property’s forfeiture and obtain — even if the owner has never been charged or convicted of a crime.

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