The size of Philly’s forfeiture program isn’t just unprecedented within Pennsylvania. In 2010, for example, Kings County (Brooklyn), with a population 1.5 times that of Philadelphia, reported taking by forfeiture about $1.2 million in assets — less than one-fifth of what Philly took. Los Angeles County, with a population more than six-and-a-half times Philadelphia’s, also successfully sued to keep just $1.2 million in seized assets.
Those numbers aren’t direct comparisons: They don’t include sums collected via a federal “equitable sharing” program in which forfeitures are outsourced to federal agencies, with local law enforcement keeping most of the proceeds. But these programs also contain certain safeguards not present in Philly: Namely, federal guidelines stipulate a minimum amount for seizure of $2,000.
Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture unit, by contrast, amasses its impressive annual take by itself pursuing thousands of vastly smaller cases — and many, many more of them.
In 2010, for example, Los Angeles County’s 48 successful forfeiture cases raised about $25,000 per case. In the same year, the Philadelphia District Attorney filed more than 8,000 forfeiture cases for currency alone, for an average of just $550. In a sample of more than 100 cases from 2011 and 2012 reviewed by City Paper, the median amount was only $178. In many of these cases, the Philadelphia District Attorney sued to seize amounts less than $100.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, in other words, isn’t just one of the most lucrative municipal forfeiture units around; it also might be the pettiest.
The implications are perhaps bigger than these unassuming amounts suggest. To be as massive a forfeiture operation as it is while pursuing such relatively tiny amounts of money means that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office must somehow pursue, process and ultimately win an enormous volume of cases — which it does.
Andre Rogers arrived at Courtroom 478 in Philadelphia’s City Hall in August with the look of a man cautiously exploring a foreign country.
Rogers, 50, a construction laborer from Grays Ferry, had recently received a letter in the mail notifying him that the District Attorney’s Office was moving to seize money confiscated from him during an arrest for drug possession with intent to deliver.
The letter baffled him: His arrest had occurred way back in 2007 (at the time, he insists, police took $281 off him, not the $81 listed by the DA and recorded on a police property receipt that Rogers says he’d never seen before and that does not bear his signature). What’s more, the case against Rogers had been withdrawn at trial. Rogers says he was entirely innocent; the law would seem to agree. Only now, five years later, the money had resurfaced.
Why had the DA suddenly decided, after five years, to pursue Rogers’ $81? The simple answer is that these cases originate in a factory-like process that produces an incredible volume of cases at an incredible rate — but with little initial review.
Forfeiture cases involving cash are generated directly from the property receipts filed by police, which are reviewed for certain loose criteria: generally, the involvement of drugs, gambling or prostitution. The information on the receipts is then copied into a series of form letters that serve as the basis for legal service, for the petition for forfeiture and as an affirmation that “the facts of the case set forth in the foregoing petition are true.”
It’s a system that allows a tremendous number of cases — and ultimately, a vast amount of revenue — to be generated by a relatively small number of people at a rapid pace. (Just two assistant district attorneys typically work on civil asset forfeiture cases, according to Beth Grossman, chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Public Nuisance Task Force, which includes the forfeiture unit.)
And once a petition is filed, the DA’s advantage over the erstwhile property owner (here, called the “respondent”) is extraordinary, and often overpowering.
Whether these cases have merit or not is a question rarely determined by a judge or jury. Instead, the DA can rely on one primary, brilliantly simple means of winning its cases: default. Default judgments, in fact, account for the bulk of the DA’s successful forfeiture. Roughly 80 percent of the thousands of cases filed annually will begin and end on a single day, the case’s first listing in court, usually when the property’s owner fails to appear.
The abundance of no-shows surely speaks, in many instances, to the strength of the DA’s case. But there are other reasons that many people may fail to fight for their property.
For one thing, whether those being relieved of their property by default are even aware of the proceedings is an open question. Grossman says that all respondents are given proper service via certified mail, and if the letter comes back unsigned, they are served personally by process servers. But certificates of legal service — usually included in standard civil dockets — are not included in physical court files of these cases.
City Paper reviewed records of service for 22 cases provided by the DA’s Office. Of these, only 11 showed service. In one case, a note attached says, “The matter should have been continued for service and the petition resent to his home address” — but apparently it wasn’t. In some cases, servers found the addresses to be vacant or found the respondents had moved long ago. In some of these cases, an attached note from the DA claimed that these respondents had given “false addresses.” But these addresses are copied from police property receipts — and the possibility that police error was to blame is not addressed. In the cases in which service was not made, forfeitures proceeded anyway.
The DA claims, in an explanation attached to this file, that its attempts at service demonstrate “compliance with service provisions set forth in the forfeiture statute.”
Another reason for the DA’s advantage is the simple fact that requiring respondents to appear in court multiple times to prove ownership of relatively small amounts of money simply isn’t worth their time. Likewise, hiring a lawyer is often a losing financial proposition from the start. Most individuals who do pursue the return of their property do so pro se — that is to say, alone.
Given the high rate of defaults, the majority of forfeiture cases are filed and concluded long before any related criminal proceedings have been resolved. Some of these alleged criminals — the same whose property is being seized in a default judgement — will eventually be found not guilty, or have charges against them withdrawn, dismissed or nolle prossed, that is, voluntarily not prosecuted.
In an interview, Grossman pointed out — correctly — that state statute allows her to proceed with forfeiture without regard to any criminal conviction (or charge). But whether doing so is fair is a different question — one CP put to Grossman and DA spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson.
“You’re hinging on these people who say their money was taken away from them, and they were found not guilty of X, Y and Z,” Jamerson said. “But the important part of that statement is the X, Y and Z.”
Asked whether she was implying that guilt should be assumed based on charges, Jamerson responded, “Every [person] isn’t pulled over and arrested. … They’re not being pulled over because they’re a soccer mom.”
Jamerson is right about that. The majority of those affected aren’t white, suburban, middle-class women; they’re generally black or Hispanic, working-class and poor.