Hearing planned on ending civil asset forfeiture in Pa.

     Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, says the effort faces opposition from prosecutors -- including Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams -- who call it a tool for seizing profits from drug traffickers while funding criminal investigations. (NewsWorks file photo)

    Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, says the effort faces opposition from prosecutors -- including Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams -- who call it a tool for seizing profits from drug traffickers while funding criminal investigations. (NewsWorks file photo)

    A proposal to ban civil asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania will come under scrutiny next week at a state Senate committee hearing.

    Through civil asset forfeiture, police and prosecutors take property from people suspected of a crime, even if they’re never convicted. Forfeited property can be cash, cars, and even houses. Opposition to the practice is gathering steam among conservatives and liberals alike.

    This past summer, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers introduced a bill to require prosecutors to first convict someone of a crime before taking their property permanently.

    “Nothing about this bill will prevent law enforcement from seizing property they think may be subject to forfeiture,” said Molly Tack-Hooper, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “The question is just when they become the owners of it, and that wouldn’t happen until after a conviction, under this bill.”

    The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association opposes the legislation. Prosecutors see civil asset forfeiture as a tool useful for taking the profit out of drug crime operations. Forfeited assets are then used to bankroll criminal investigations.

    But some supporters of the proposal say their larger obstacle is raising public awareness.

    A survey last month of 500 registered Pennsylvania voters found that 75 percent had never heard of civil asset forfeiture. The poll was commissioned by Fix Forfeiture, a political nonprofit pushing to end civil asset forfeiture. The group does not disclose its donors.

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