New report gives Pa. a D-Minus for its civil forfeiture laws | Thursday Morning Coffee

December 17, 2020 7:03 am

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

In 2019, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Transportation Security Administration seized retiree Terry Rolin’s life savings of $82,373 from his daughter as she passed through Pittsburgh International Airport on her way to open a joint bank account for him.

Neither Rolin nor his daughter were ever charged with a crime, according to published reports, and the money was never returned to them. In January, they sued the federal government seeking to force the agencies to return the cash.

As The New York Daily News reported at the time, federal officials called the seizure a necessary tool to fight crime. But critics say the practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, is little more than policing for profit that leaves folks such as Rolin and his daughter victims of the system.

A new report by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-minded public interest law firm, gives Pennsylvania a D-Minus for its civil forfeiture laws, finding, among other things, that there’s a huge profit incentive since law enforcement gets to keep 100 percent of what it seizes,

All told, researchers gave 35 states overall grades of D-Plus or worse “for extending property owners meager protections and giving law enforcement large financial stakes in forfeiture proceeds,” according to the report’s executive summary.

“In 2018 alone, 42 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. departments of Justice and the Treasury forfeited over $3 billion. This is the year for which we have data from the largest number of states,” the report reads.


(Institute for Justice, screen capture)

Only one state, New Mexico, earned an A grade for abolishing civil forfeiture and “eliminating any financial incentive by directing forfeiture proceeds to the state’s general fund,” the report found. The report also found that public safety in New Mexico did not suffer as a result of abolishing civil forfeiture, which is the argument states have used for retaining the practice.

Pennsylvania’s poor grade comes despite a 2017 state law, approved by the Republican-controlled state Legislature, and signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolfthat imposed some reforms. Those changes included:

  • “Higher burdens of proof imposed on the Commonwealth;
  • “Protection for third-party owners by placing an additional burden of proof on the Commonwealth;
  • “Improved transparency in auditing and reporting;
  • “Specific and additional protection in real property cases by prohibiting the pre-forfeiture seizure of real property without a hearing, and;
  • “An extra level of protection for anyone acquitted of a related crime who is seeking the return of their property,” a summary of the legislation, provided by Wolf’s office, reads.

In a statement that accompanied the bill signing, Wolf called the law an important first step, but noted that he supported further reforms.

The Institute for Justice’s report calls on Pennsylvania to:

  • “End civil forfeiture
  • “Direct all forfeiture proceeds to a non-law enforcement fund
  • “Fully close the equitable sharing loophole
  • “Strengthen transparency and accountability requirements,” the report reads.
Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
On his way out the door, President Donald Trump is taking a final shot at Obamacare-authorized health insurance exchanges, our partners at report. Pennsylvania’s state-level exchange, Pennie, also is up and running.

National Correspondent Dan Vock assesses the turbulent legacy of outgoing U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Our Helping the Helpers series, in partnership with the Uniontown Herald-Standard, continues this morning with a look at the efforts by Connellsville’s Community Ministries to help those in their community who need assistance.

A COVID-19 surge in Pennsylvania’s state prisons has prompted calls for a system-wide lockdownCassie Miller reports.

A top Republican in the state Senate is teeing up the second round of action on a proposed constitutional amendment opening a civil window for sex abuse survivors, your humble newsletter author reports.

COVID-19 vaccinations in Philadelphia got underway on Wednesday. Our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune have what you need to know.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Lloyd E. Sheaffer reflects on what should be a season of healing, and wonders if we can get there. And two advocates say that, with a wave of evictions looming, Pennsylvania needs to seal eviction records.

(Image via

State officials have threatened to fine or shut down at least 150 restaurants for violating the indoor dining ban, the Inquirer reports.
State officials have cautioned colleges against reopening this spring, given COVID-19 caseloads, the Post-Gazette reports.
PennLive looks at how the pandemic has complicated taking care of the homeless this year (paywall).
Black students in the East Penn Schools in the Lehigh Valley say they feel unwanted and invisible, the Morning Call reports.
Luzerne County is getting a drive-through COVID-19 testing site, the Citizens-Voice reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

The head of Philly’s Black Doctor’s COVID-19 Testing Consortium tells WHYY-FM why she decided to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Pennsylvania’s child care centers are wrestling with a COVID-19 surge, WITF-FM reports.
Erie City Council has approved a $97.7 million city budget for FY 2021, GoErie reports.
U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, has introduced legislation that would make it a crime to intimidate poll workers. PoliticsPA reports.
Politico looks at what’s next for Never Trump Republicans.

What Goes On.
Pa. Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine holds a virtual news briefing at 1:30 p.m. to talk about the state of the pandemic.

Heavy Rotation.
Unless you spent an unusual amount of time in the early ‘Aughts obsessively seeking out and listening to Australian indie music (spoiler alert, we did), the chances are very good you never heard ‘The Penny Drops,’ the sprawling and ambitious solo project from Bhagavad Guitars frontman John Kilbey. The record, “Good Fortunes,” is gorgeous in places. And here’s one of the standout tracks, ‘Good as Gold.’ It’s a great, lo-fi way to kick off your morning.

Thursday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link.
Liverpool beat Tottenham 2-1 on Wednesday
as the Reds went to the top of the Premier League table. The Guardian has the details.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.