Philadelphia agrees to overhaul property seizure law

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Philadelphia has agreed to overhaul its civil forfeiture laws, limiting what law enforcement officers can seize and how it can use the proceeds as part of a proposed lawsuit settlement announced Tuesday.

The two consent decrees will have to be approved by a federal judge as part of the settlement of a 2014 class action lawsuit brought against the city, the district attorney's office, police and other city officials.

The city's civil forfeiture law allows law enforcement officials to confiscate property if someone is suspected of a crime.

The lawsuit, filed by the Institute for Justice, alleges that the law violates defendants' due process because of the lack of oversight and a financial incentive for the confiscations since the proceeds have been used to pay salaries.

"Without any conviction or criminal charges, people are losing their property," said Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney for the Institute who directs its national initiative to end forfeiture abuse. "This decree completely transforms the Kafkaesque procedures with the notorious courtroom 478. It ensures judges not prosecutors oversee the forfeiture process and monitor it for fairness."

Nationwide, lawsuits have been filed with mixed success alleging the state and local forfeiture laws are unconstitutional. The Institute will argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court later this year in which an Indiana man is challenging the seizure of his car as an excessive fine.

The Institute has said that Philadelphia's civil forfeiture practices are some of the most stringent in the country, averaging about $5.6 million in property seizures per year over the decade before it filed its lawsuit.

The Philadelphia mayor and district attorney scheduled a news conference for Tuesday afternoon to address the proposed changes.

One of the Philadelphia consent decrees released Tuesday addresses what the existing and future proceeds from forfeitures can fund. Sheth said proceeds would no longer be used to pay salaries for prosecutors or law enforcement personnel, and instead will cover drug treatment and prevention programs.

The decree also uses existing profits from past confiscations to set up a $3 million fund to reimburse people whose property was excessively seized, starting with those who were never convicted of a crime. Any remaining money will be used to fund community programs such as legal defense funds.

The second decree would limit what law enforcement officials can confiscate. It would prohibit the seizure of property for simple drug possession. It would also bar the seizure of less than $1,000 in cash unless there is an arrest or evidence of illegal activity, and prohibit defendants from forfeiting cash less than $250 to the district attorney's office.

Sheth said other changes will include having a judge oversee the civil proceedings, providing a prompt hearing for people to request the return of property, keeping better track of the property seized and better informing people of their rights and the process.