A couple of months ago, a consent decree drastically restructured Philadelphia’s severely-abused asset forfeiture program. It didn’t eliminate the program entirely, but it did eliminate the small-ball cash grabs favored by local law enforcement. The median seizure by Philly law enforcement is only $178, but it adds up to millions if you do it all the time. Small seizures like this now need to be tied to arrests or the property needs to be used as evidence in a criminal case.
Other restraints will hopefully eliminate local law enforcement’s worst practices — like seizing someone’s house because their kid sold $40 of drugs to a police informant. It also should slow down seizures of whatever’s in a person’s pockets by forbidding forfeitures of under $250 entirely.
The consent decree obviously won’t solve everything, and part of the problem is the consent decree itself. It forbids seizures of less than $1,000 unless the property is evidence in an ongoing case. Guess what local law enforcement is doing.
In November 2017, Iyo Bishop of Philadelphia was arrested on assault charges after a boyfriend, who she said was abusive, accused her of striking him with an SUV. City police picked her up after spotting the vehicle parked on the street weeks later. Bishop maintained her innocence but was cuffed and thrown in a squad car. She then watched in disbelief as an officer hopped in her 2002 Jeep Liberty and drove off.
Although the charges against Bishop were eventually dropped, she never saw her vehicle again. Police sold the Jeep at auction for $1,155 in storage fees they had assessed while the case made its way through the court system.
As this report by Ryan Briggs of The Appeal shows, the consent decree basically codifies this behavior. Cops seize vehicles when making arrests, ticking one of the requirement boxes. Then they claim the vehicle is evidence, ticking the other box.
Older vehicles worth less than $1,000 simply sit in impound lots racking up fees while the accused’s case languishes in the court system. The vehicle can’t be returned until the criminal case is processed, so it doesn’t take long for impound fees to outweigh the vehicle’s value. All of this is completely beyond the control of the person’s whose car has been seized.
Even if charges are dismissed or the accused is cleared of wrongdoing, the car’s owner still owes these fees. Every day they can’t pay it, the total increases. Sooner or later, the vehicle will be auctioned. Now the innocent person has no vehicle and is still ultimately liable for uncollected fees.
This allows cops to make money on seized vehicles even if the vehicle isn’t seized from someone suspected of criminal activity. It can happen to crime victims as well.
In 2014, Karin Foley and her husband, Willis, were moving from New York State to South Carolina when their vehicle blew a tire in Pennsylvania. When Willis Foley pulled the car over and got out to change the tire, a semi struck and killed him. Pennsylvania State Police later determined that the truck driver had been at the wheel for nearly 30 hours straight.
But the state troopers who responded to the accident impounded the Foleys’ diesel pickup and a horse trailer packed with their possessions as evidence. Like Bishop, Karin Foley never saw the truck, the trailer, or any of her belongings again.
The criminal case against the trucker dragged on for three years but never made it to trial. In May, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. State police called Foley a few months later to tell her that she had one week to travel to Pennsylvania—hundreds of miles from her South Carolina home—or they would auction her truck and trailer.
And auction it they did. The seized evidence was never used in court and local law enforcement immediately flipped the seized vehicle for unearned profit. To top it off, the coroner billed the widow $175 for her husband’s body bag.
While it’s understandable some property will be seized as evidence in criminal cases, fees shouldn’t be charged to those found innocent or to victims of criminal activity. This is just another form of forfeiture that provides almost no avenue of recourse to property owners other than paying the government to give them back their stuff.