Higher standards for asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania

Law enforcement in Pennsylvania have their work cut out for them in the future if they want to seize property with alleged connections to drug crimes.

After unanimous passage by the state House of Representatives this week, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed into law reforms that raise standards on proof in the Commonwealth.

Supporters describe it as a step towards smarter forfeiture practices and improved protections for property owners. The new law increases both transparency and accountability for law enforcement while protecting property owners not directly involved in suspected criminal activity.

Before putting his signature on Act 13, a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Folmer, prosecutors only had to prove with a preponderance of the evidence that a connection existed between property and criminal activity. The new law requires prosecutors to prove by "clear and convincing evidence" of a connection.

The bill was inspired by a case where a 72-year-old Philadelphia woman's house was seized because of her son's arrest for selling small amounts of marijuana at the residence. Prosecutors claimed that the suspect's mother was aware of dealing and considered the seizure justified.

Recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard the case and ruled that property seizure was only justified if the only was more than aware of the crime. She would have had to agree with it.

Folmer's initial goal with the legislation was to require a conviction before asset seizure. Pushback from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association resulted in the removal of that provision. The professional association considers asset seizure a valuable tool in the fight against drug dealing.

Folmer, Wolf and other proponents may only be getting warmed up. They believe that the bill is a step forward to create higher burdens of proof involving asset seizure.

Simply put, there may be more to come.

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