Investigation Finds Philly PD Officers Bought Forfeited Houses Seized During Drug Arrests

from the unlisted-job-perk dept

Philadelphia’s asset forfeiture programs have subjected the city’s residents to all sorts of abuse. Cops have taken cars away from their owners because a child, relative, or friend was arrested while driving the vehicle. Law enforcement has tried to take entire homes away from grandmothers because their kid sold $140-worth of marijuana to an undercover cop.

A recent court settlement is reforming the program — something the city’s legislators have had zero success doing. Cash under the amount of $250 can no longer be forfeited. Seizures under $1000 need to be accompanied by an arrest and charges. The city’s law enforcement has been flexing its creativity, using the new arrest requirement to seize vehicles as “evidence” and hoping the wheels of justice grind slowly enough it would be cheaper to relinquish ownership than pay to get the car out of the impound lot.

We know cops directly profit from asset forfeiture, but when we say that we generally mean their agencies get new toys, vehicles, and other niceties by converting other people’s property into discretionary spending. But there’s an actual personal profit angle to forfeiture that hasn’t been discussed. An investigation by PlanPhilly shows police officers have personally and directly benefited from property seizures tied to drug enforcement efforts. (h/t Wendy Cockcroft)

Maleny Vazquez remembers when the police came and took the house across the street. Vazquez has only lived on this block of Waterloo Street for a few years, but in this chaotic section of Kensington, riven by the drug trade, she has gotten used to seeing police empty homes.

“There were lot of guns and a lot of drugs in there,” she recalls. “They took 30 guns out of there.”

In neighborhoods across Philadelphia, the city sells homes that owe back taxes, or have fallen into foreclosure. But the sales in Vazquez’s neighborhood were different. Here, police seized properties after drug raids. Once they were taken, the district attorney auctioned them off to the highest bidder, for cash that went back to the law enforcement agencies.

This program saw Philly law enforcement rake in as much as $6 million a year for most of the past quarter-century. But it’s not just the indirect benefit incentivizing property seizures. With this incentive, drug raids could just be home shopping.

[R]ecords showed that members of Philadelphia law enforcement directly benefited from these sales. This investigation detected at least 11 properties that were sold to Philadelphia police officers trying their hands at real estate investment.

The number may not seem like much over the course of twenty-five years, but PlanPhilly says there’s no way of knowing exactly how much property ended up in the possession of law enforcement officers. It was only able to examine 1,682 records held by the District Attorney’s office, which handled the sale of forfeited homes. The Philly PD conveniently decided not to retain records on forfeited property, ensuring it had nothing to give to PlanPhilly when it started asking questions.

The Philly PD does not actually prohibit officers from buying seized property. It notes it “gives the appearance of impropriety,” but apparently feels it isn’t actual impropriety worth deterring. Nothing prevents officers from buying up houses they’ve seized except their better judgment. For at least 11 officers, an appearance of impropriety isn’t enough to deter them from looking like they’re headed out home shopping every time they don their SWAT gear.

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Comments on “Investigation Finds Philly PD Officers Bought Forfeited Houses Seized During Drug Arrests”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

When 'higher than zero' is too high

The number may not seem like much over the course of twenty-five years, but PlanPhilly says there’s no way of knowing exactly how much property ended up in the possession of law enforcement officers.

One instance would have been too much, so even if that is the number, eleven is far too high.

Bad enough that they get to financially benefit from doing their gorram jobs(giving them the benefit of the doubt they don’t deserve in assuming that the accused actually were guilty and the property in question actually was the result of criminal activity), but when you reach the point where they’re able to get houses to flip and make a hefty profit from, that takes an already abominable system and ramps it to the sky.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: When 'higher than zero' is too high

Not at all. One property every 2+ years?

It was NOT the cops that auctioned them off – it was the District Attorney, most likely under orders from a higher political authority.

I’ve bought several local properties at Seizure Auctions. For whatever reason, the bank or authorities had taken Ownership.

They tend to go cheap. If you wanted to flip them, you would have to repair them – even a couple of months sitting uninhabited can wreak havoc on a building.

To condemn the 11 cops (if it was that many) for seeing that they could make money legally in this manner is nonsense. Would you condemn the local church if their priests bought them?

The seizure system is a nightmare that should never have been allowed – it’s a direct violation of several Constitutional Amendments. We fought it in ’70 to no avail, as the “unwashed masses” saw it as a way to “fight crime”. I recall some news articles touting RICO because “mobsters can afford good lawyers, this will prevent them from doing so”. Insane.

What struck me as odd was that the proceeds of the auctions went to the police. Normally they go to the Receiver of Taxes, then get added to the yearly budget for allocation where needed.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: When 'higher than zero' is too high

To condemn the 11 cops (if it was that many) for seeing that they could make money legally in this manner is nonsense. Would you condemn the local church if their priests bought them?

If the local church was in a position where by their own actions performing their jobs they were able to cause said houses to be available to be bought at cheap prices? Yes.

My objection to the practice seems to align fairly well with yours, in that I see it as a legal abomination that should never have been created, as it creates all the wrong incentives for police. Police should not be benefiting financially by doing their own jobs(beyond being paid of course), and especially not in a way where the more crime there is(or is claimed to exist) the better off they are.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: When 'higher than zero' is too high

Seizure of even a nickel in pocket change is an “excessive fine”.

But you’re excoriating a couple of officers, roughly one every two years, who bid and won a property at a public auction.

Now, if they had some kind of “inside track” that allowed them to purchase auction properties before they hit the block (happens all the time with Tax Auctions), you have a complaint. However, you don’t have a complaint about them buying a property simply because it was seized.

I’ve bid on a LOT of local properties up for auction. Unlike a sale that requires full disclosure, they HIDE everything they can about the property.

The listings are published as Section Block and Lot. No other information other than (sometimes) the Assessed Value. The kicker on the Value is that it’s from the year the last taxes were actually PAID on it.

The fact that the properties were from a drug or other police seizure probably wasn’t made public. You pays your money, you takes your chances.

I think we can agree that in the last 25 years they’ve seized more than 11 buildings?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 When 'higher than zero' is too high

I’d be surprised if the seizure of a house wasn’t talked about in the precinct, but if it really is anonymised to the extent that you say(assuming I’m reading it correctly) such that they have no real ability to know which house they are bidding on then it seems the most I can blame them for with regards to this is adding to the pool of houses to be bid on.

Still a problem due to the whole seizures bit, but not as much as I was thinking.

Anon says:

Re: 8TH Amendment

The obvious question is – if the car is taken as “evidence” why would there be impound fees? It’s not like it was parked illegally by the owner in a place where it could not remain, where impound is part of the punishment – the police took it into their custody for their purposes, the Police Department should bear responsibility for storage (and for damages resulting from improper or overly long storage).

Anonymous Coward says:

insider trading

This is quite an amazing story. Even more amazing is the fact that the cops never bothered to set up an offshore shell company to buy the properties through, as any lawyer would have recommended. So they were easily tagged through public records. Maybe they never even saw any possibly conflict of interest in what they were doing, which is even worse if they actually thought of themselves as being perfectly entitled to profit from their position of public trust as police officers.

The article does not say if these boarded-up houses were auctioned off without allowing prospective buyers to ever inspect the properties or not, but judging by one house’s five thousand dollar selling price (back-taxes not mentioned), or roughly lot value, it would appear they may have been sold sight-unseen (or maybe with highly inconvenient and rushed show times).

So the cops who bought these houses were getting quite a bargain if they were in any better shape than tear-down condition. The story suggests that cops may have been the only auction bidders who knew this highly pertinent detail, and so naturally would have won the bid every time.

Besides real estate sales, Storage shed auctions would be another potential gold mine for police to exploit, as these are apparently auctioned off sight unseen (if those “reality” TV shows are anything to base judgement on) and being the only party to know what’s stored inside would give police considerable advantage in assessing a maximum bid offer.

Paul Brinker (profile) says:

Re: insider trading

While not like reality TV, storage auctions are a real thing. Most of the firms in a local area will set them all up on the same day and the people bidding are more or less bidding for the right to clean out the unit.

The crazy part is that they really do sell the unit with your only view being what you can see from the door.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

What IS the number then?

Note that the cop-seized houses were auctioned off by the District Attorney.

That’s NOT who handles bank-seizures or Abandoned properties.

The article says the COPS don’t have a record of how many they seized – but the DA’s office will most certainly have a list of such properties sold and still on the books.

Cross-reference THAT list with the names of cops and you can get a more accurate number.

But, again, 1 seized house sold to a cop every two and a half years is well within statistical likelihood – and it’s actually lower than I’d have thought probable.

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