As more lawmakers and activists talk about reforms to the criminal justice system, one of the topics that always comes up is asset forfeiture. This little understood concept is one of the most powerful tools that the federal government and Pennsylvania have at their disposal; it is also a power that they frequently abuse.
How Does Asset Forfeiture Work?
Pennsylvania's asset forfeiture laws give the state very broad power to seize property it believes is connected to any criminal activity. This can include cars, real estate and cash. If you are the owner of the property, you do not have to be charged or convicted of a crime for this to occur. For example, if police believe any property you own comes from the sale of drugs like heroin or prescription drugs, they may try to seize it.
While asset forfeiture laws were initially enacted as a strategy for dealing a financial blow to drug cartels and organized crime outfits, police departments often use the laws to benefit their bottom lines, because they can sell the seized property at auction. Many people now facing much less serious drug charges now find themselves the subject of these harsh financial penalties.
In fact, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has found that law enforcement agencies throughout Pennsylvania have used asset forfeiture laws to seize more than $100 million in private property over the last decade.
What Are Your Rights?
While reform efforts are underway, if you find yourself the subject of asset forfeiture proceedings, you need to call a lawyer immediately. If you do not contest the forfeiture, prosecutors will likely be able to take the property without even appearing before a judge.
An experienced lawyer can help you understand your rights and devise the best strategy for helping you retain your property and fight any related criminal charges.