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Institute For Justice Survey Shows How Philadelphia's Forfeiture Program Preyed On Poor Minorities

from the I-guess-the-gov't-feels-minorities-just-haven't-been-oppressed-enough dept

The Institute for Justice managed to kill off most of Philadelphia’s severely abused civil forfeiture program in 2018. Litigation resulted in a consent decree that banned law enforcement from seizing cash amounts less than $250 and seizures of less than $1,000 were forbidden unless accompanied by criminal charges or if the seizure was to be used as evidence in a trial.

This consent decree was necessary because the Philly PD had abused the system for years, taking minute amounts of cash off anyone they arrested as part of a catch-and-release program where alleged criminals were free to go but the PD held onto the cash. Officers were also caught buying seized houses at auction, flipping them to turn a profit, and incentivizing even more bogus property seizures.

Of course, the PD took the “evidence” loophole and ran with it, seizing vehicles as supposedly instrumental to prosecutions that never happened before auctioning them off and pocketing the money.

The Institute for Justice has doubled back on the impetus of its lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia, surveying victims of forfeiture programs and coming up with plenty of reasons why residents should be thrilled these programs are now (mostly) dead.

Its report [PDF] on Philly forfeiture surveyed 407 residents, resulting in data that shows the PD targeted minorities frequently and poor minorities most frequently of all.

The demographic characteristics of Philadelphia forfeiture victims look quite different from those of Philadelphians overall. Figure 1 disaggregates the racial and ethnic makeup of the sample, showing the large majority of respondents were Black. Indeed, as Figure 2 shows, Philadelphia forfeiture victims are more likely to be Black than the general population. They are also more likely to earn lower incomes and be unemployed and less likely to have a college degree or own their homes. These results suggest Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture machine disproportionately entangled members of disadvantaged communities.

This is partly a result of biased policing efforts, which continues to be a problem for law enforcement everywhere, not just in Philadelphia. But targeting low income residents also ensured the Philly PD would be more likely to retain ownership of seized property. Residents making less than $50,000 a year had lower amounts taken from them and often lacked the funds to seek their property’s return. With legal fees approaching $3,500 for a successful return effort, most chose to simply walk away from the forfeited property, rather than spend time and money they didn’t have fighting against a system designed to deter them from retrieving seized property.

When it comes to forfeiture in Philadelphia, no job is too small:

Police seized as little as $25 in cash, a cologne gift set worth $20 and crutches.

As the report points out, the median value for seized property was just $600. More than 50% of seizures were amounts less than $600. Nearly 70% were for less than $2,000. Less than one-quarter were for more than $3,000 — an amount that might turn a legal battle for the return of property into a breakeven effort.

But even the initial step in recovering property was often bypassed by the city. You can’t try to reclaim property if there’s no record of the police taking it from you — something police officers appear to have used to their advantage.

More than half of respondents—58%—never received a receipt for their property at the time of seizure, and two thirds did not receive any information from police about how to begin the process of getting their property back. A simple receipt may not sound like much in the grand scheme of the complex civil forfeiture process, but people who received a receipt at the time of seizure were eight times more likely to get their property back than those who did not.

As for the argument that confiscating cologne sets and crutches is essential to fighting crime, the stats don’t back that up. In most cases, forfeitures were completely removed from criminal convictions or even criminal charges.

Of those respondents who ultimately lost their property to forfeiture, more than half (56%) were never charged with a crime, and three-quarters were never found guilty of any wrongdoing—that is, they were not convicted of a crime, nor did they enter into any sort of plea deal with the court.

As we’ve covered extensively at Techdirt, abusive forfeiture programs aren’t unique to Philadelphia. They’re everywhere. It’s only in recent years that legislators have decided to do something about abuses entities like the Institute of Justice have highlighted, reported on, and sued about for years. Things are changing for the better in many places, but more work still needs to be done to push cops back to earning their money honestly, rather than just taking stuff because they can.

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Comments on “Institute For Justice Survey Shows How Philadelphia's Forfeiture Program Preyed On Poor Minorities”

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23 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Arijirija says:

Oh the Irony!!!

I’m reminded of The Lord of the Rings, The Scouring of the Shire, the description of Sharkey (Saruman)’s gangs:

" ‘Well no, the year’s been good enough,’ said Hob. ‘We grows a lot of food, but we don’t rightly know what becomes of it. It’s all these ‘’gatherers’’ and ‘’sharers’’, I reckon, going round counting and measuring and taking off to storage. They do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again.’ "

The bitter irony is that Tolkien thought he was describing "Socialism", whereas he was describing that most "Capitalistic" of all societies, the US of A, and the Philly Robbers’R’Us Police Department – and probably others as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Oh the Irony!!!

Thought that Tolkien had specifically explained he wasn’t doing allegory for anything or anyone, and in fact despised the idea?

It’s more likely he was just writing an occupying force shaking down an agrarian society they was occupying. In the medieval period, armies were often compared to "locust hordes" because they ate everything that wasn’t nailed down. I gotta imagine an occupying army in a time before refrigeration, engines, fertilizers, etc. would’ve come off as a bitter blight to the people around ’em, particularly if, like the Shire, they never kept a standing army before.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

OK, so I read this part;

"…This consent decree was necessary because the Philly PD had abused the system for years, taking minute amounts of cash off anyone they arrested as part of a catch-and-release program…"

…and now someone needs to tell me how actual highway robbery became part of ordinary law enforcement procedure in certain parts of metropolitan US.

It’s shit like this which gives the US conspiracy theorist nutcases credibility when they say you can’t trust government agencies.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

someone needs to tell me how actual highway robbery became part of ordinary law enforcement procedure

Greed, lack of sufficient civilian oversight, and the ridiculous “tough on crime” mentality that has led to cops putting schoolchildren in handcuffs.

It’s shit like this which gives the US conspiracy theorist nutcases credibility when they say you can’t trust government agencies.

You can’t trust government agencies⁠—not completely, anyway.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"You can’t trust government agencies⁠—not completely, anyway."

Although that’s true anywhere…last time I was held up in a random police check a few years back all they did was ask my name, tell me to blow into a breathalyzer and inform me one of my front lights was on the blink. They did not rob me. And I would have been surprised if they tried.

In the US, however, I would have had non-insignificant reason to fear at the approach of a police officer, both for my life and for my wallet. And not due to any malfeasance on my part.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

…and now someone needs to tell me how actual highway robbery became part of ordinary law enforcement procedure in certain parts of metropolitan US.

It’s a nice little scam concocted once it was realized that law enforcement was losing funds due to the continued legalization of marijuana.

First, you make it so banks can’t expose themselves to funds tied to cannabis, lest they lose their accreditation (or whatever it’s called). That sets the cannabis business up to be a mostly cash market. And since other drugs are a totally cash business, ipso facto, anyone with anything other than $10 in their wallet must somehow be tied to the drug business.

And because drugs must be bad, (lest we lay off those poor underappreciated cops and dogs, who would otherwise be unemployable because of their specialization) those innocents who get caught up in the net are just "unknowing contributors" to the greater cause.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"and crutches"

But we have NOOOOOOOOOOO idea why the public doesn’t love us.

Of course everyone it isn’t happening to imagines that all of these seizures are drug dealers with big rolls of cash they surely can’t imagine the cops strong arm robbing a little old lady on SS check day… but I bet they have.

Anonymous Coward says:

"As the report points out, the median value for seized property was just $600. More than 50% of seizures were amounts less than $600."

I’m sorry, this bit makes no sense. By definition the median value is the 50% mark, so at most exactly 50% can be below the median value (if there are an even number of values).

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Where one seizure is $1 and ten are $3, the median is $2, while the mean is $2.8

No, the median is 3. Plug it into a spreadsheet and see, or Wolfram Alpha.

https://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=median%7B1%2C3%2C3%2C3%2C3%2C3%2C3%2C3%2C3%2C3%2C3%7D

The median is the middle of a range of numbers

It’s 3 because the median is the middle number of a range of numbers.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I have no clue what the data is, but it is equally likely that 600 is the median of a set of values, not the average of total seizures.

The statement is: "The median value of an individual item seized (including cash, which counted as one item in our analysis) was just $600, and the median value of all items seized during a single incident was only $1,370".

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