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Guilty Property - How Law Enforcement Takes $1 Million in Cash from Innocent Philadelphians Every Year, ACLU, 2015

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Guilty Property
How Law Enforcement Takes $1 Million in Cash from
Innocent Philadelphians Every Year — and Gets Away with It

June 2015

Guilty Property
How Law Enforcement Takes $1 Million in Cash from
Innocent Philadelphians Every Year— and Gets Away with It

American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania

The cover photo depicts a neighborhood in North Philadelphia, the area where forfeiture enforcement is
concentrated. Source: Tony Fischer — some rights reserved — —
cropped version.

Every year, Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies take roughly $14 million in cash,
cars, and homes from property owners and never give it back.1 These confiscations are
authorized by state civil asset forfeiture laws — powerful legal tools that let police and
prosecutors seize and keep property that they claim was connected to a crime.2 

But since civil forfeiture is based on the legal fiction that the property itself is “guilty,” law
enforcement doesn’t actually have to charge the property owner with any wrongdoing, much
less convict them of a crime.3 It’s enough that someone is alleged to have committed a crime
using the property. And because civil forfeitures are technically proceedings against property,
not people, property owners aren’t afforded the same constitutional protections they’d receive
as criminal defendants. This forces property owners to wage complicated and time-consuming
legal battles in civil court without the help of counsel or other safeguards.4 

Under state civil forfeiture laws, all the revenue generated from forfeiture goes directly to law
enforcement and can even be distributed to police and prosecutors as bonuses.5 As a result,
the agencies making enforcement decisions have a strong financial incentive to pursue as
many forfeitures as possible. In Philadelphia, the district attorney’s share of forfeiture proceeds
is roughly $2.2 million — or 7.3% of its appropriated budget.6 Assuming forfeiture proceeds are
split between prosecutors and police in a similar ratio across the state, DA’s offices in other
counties aren’t far behind. In fact, in four out of the next ten most populous counties, the DA
would receive the equivalent of about 5% of its budget in forfeiture proceeds.7

FIGURE 1 indicates the neighborhoods in Philadelphia where civil forfeiture enforcement is
concentrated (based on ACLU-PA’s randomized sample of cash forfeiture cases from 2011 to 2013).8

Guilty Property

ACLU of Pennsylvania


Worrying evidence suggests that the profits and sweeping powers offered by civil forfeiture
have distorted a tool originally targeted at cartels and drug kingpins.9 An article in the
Philadelphia City Paper in 2012 indicated that Philadelphia prosecutors regularly forfeit sums
as small as $100 and that people trying to get their property back sometimes had to attend
upwards of ten court dates just to reach a hearing before a judge.10 Other media accounts
chronicled the human toll of civil forfeiture. In one, a Philadelphia grandmother faced losing her
home because a grandson sold a small amount of drugs out of it.11 In another, a Lancaster
mother had $300 seized from her purse when her son was arrested on narcotics charges.12

Law enforcement argues that stories like these are outliers and that the vast majority of
forfeitures target criminals and their ill-gotten gains.13 In a recent op-ed in the Philadelphia
Inquirer, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams wrote that the public shouldn’t “believe the
claims that we are just snatching up property” from innocent third parties, because the
forfeitures pursued by his office were “generally cash seized directly from drug dealers.”14 This
report aims to answer a series of questions related to these claims: Is it true that civil forfeiture
is used primarily against people convicted of criminal offenses? Or has the lure of profits
tempted prosecutors to pursue forfeitures with only a
An estimated 32% of
tenuous connection to crime? And if civil forfeiture is used
to seize innocent owners’ property, why do most forfeiture cash forfeitures are not
cases still end in the government’s favor? And what supported by a
communities bear the burden of forfeiture enforcement?

conviction, meaning well
Though the use and abuse of civil forfeiture has garnered over $1 million is forfeited
nationwide attention, surprisingly little research exists in every year from innocent
any jurisdiction on enforcement patterns related to Philadelphians.
procedural fairness, conviction rates, or racial impact. To
remedy this deficiency, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (“ACLU-PA”)
launched a months-long investigation into Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture practices. By requesting
public records and pulling physical court files, we gathered summary data on every civil
forfeiture case filed in Philadelphia in recent years and in-depth information on a randomized
sample of over 350 cash forfeiture cases from 2011 to 2013. We also interviewed property
owners to learn about their personal experiences with our city’s forfeiture system.

This report summarizes the findings of that investigation and presents evidence that, contrary
to its public assurances, Philadelphia law enforcement does misuse forfeiture. The picture that
emerged was troubling on several fronts. First, unfairness exists at every stage of forfeiture
proceedings, from the inadequacy of initial notice to the complexity and length of cases to the
prohibitive cost of reaching a final hearing before a judge. Second, an estimated 32% of cash
forfeitures are not supported by a conviction, meaning that well over $1 million is forfeited
every year from innocent Philadelphians. Finally, civil forfeiture laws are enforced
disproportionately against African-Americans — especially and most disturbingly, against
African-Americans who were never convicted of any offense.

Guilty Property

ACLU of Pennsylvania


The raw numbers of forfeiture
enforcement in Philadelphia are staggering.
Based on data from 2011 to 2013, roughly
6,000 forfeiture cases are filed on an annual
basis, including nearly 300 against houses
and other real estate.15 This enforcement
activity results in the forfeiture of some 100
homes, 150 vehicles, and roughly $4 million
in cash each year, for a total of around $5
million in annual income.16 

Media attention has understandably focused
on the dramatic cases where people’s
homes or family businesses are at risk, but
the bulk of forfeiture revenues comes from
the confiscation of small amounts of cash. In
Philadelphia, a conservative estimate pegs
cash forfeitures at 92% of all cases.17 In
other counties, the percentage is even

Cash forfeitures are in particular need of
close scrutiny because claimants hardly ever
succeed in getting their money back. As
Figure 2 illustrates, requests by the
Philadelphia DA’s office to forfeit cash (called
“forfeiture petitions”) were granted in an
estimated 96% of cases, settled in 3%, and
rejected in only 1%.19 In fact, approximately
87% of these cases ended when the
property owner failed to appear for the first
court date and the property was forfeited by
default. 20 This means that prosecutors
acquired roughly $3.3 million simply by filing
a piece of paper and without presenting any
evidence to a judge.21 

Supporters of civil forfeiture laws may view
statistics like these as evidence that the
system is working. After all, why would truly
innocent people not even dispute the loss of

Guilty Property

FIGURE 2: Easy Money





Property Returned (1%)
Settlement (3%)
Forfeiture - Multiple Listings (9%)
Forfeiture - First Listing (87%)

their money? This argument has a superficial
logic to it — and undoubtedly some people
fail to appear for court because they are
guilty. However, a careful examination of
data on forfeiture practices in Philadelphia
points to several more troubling explanations
for why so few property owners fight back
and why even fewer succeed when they do.

A records review indicated, for example,
that a significant minority of property owners
don’t even know that the DA’s office is
seeking to forfeit their money. Every time a
forfeiture petition is filed, state law requires
that prosecutors make efforts to serve that
petition on the property owner (or the person
who was in possession of the property at the
time of the seizure) and alert her to the
upcoming court date. Prosecutors must first
attempt service by mail and in person and, if

ACLU of Pennsylvania


FIGURE 3: Did the DA’s office give proper notice?
No - Failed to Publish Ad (15%)
No - Mail Error (7%)
No - Failed to Send to New Address (3%)
No - Personal Service Error (4%)
No - No Record (5%)
Yes (66%)
was informed that the tenant had moved,
and made no effort to follow up at the new
address. If these notice trends hold true
across all cash cases, such failures translate
to $1.3 million taken from people who may
never even have had the option of contesting
the forfeiture.24

both fail, publish an advertisement in an area
newspaper.22 After these attempts are made,
the Philadelphia DA’s office submits proof of
notice (for example, certified mail receipts or
forms completed by personal service agents)
to the court and represents that it satisfied
the statutory requirements.

But an examination of the proof of notice
from a randomized selection of around 100
cash cases revealed that the Philadelphia
DA’s office routinely fails to meet this basic
standard.23 In a troubling 34% of the cases
in the sample, property owners did not
receive proper notice, including 5% of cases
where the DA’s office had no proof of notice
at all. In other instances, the proof of notice
showed that certified mail was sent, but the
signature on the receipt was illegible and the
receipt’s boxes for “addressee” and “agent”
were left unchecked. Other times the DA’s
office attempted to deliver notice in person,

Guilty Property

Another explanation for high default and
even higher forfeiture rates is that disputing a
forfeiture often isn’t rational. As originally
reported in the Philadelphia City Paper,
property owners sometimes have to appear
at upwards of ten court dates before
reaching a hearing in front of a judge.25 Our
review of a data set compiling some 16,000
non-real-estate cases filed between 2011
and 2013 showed that property owners who
disputed a forfeiture had to appear a median
of four times before having their case
decided.26 Failure to appear at every one of
these dates resulted in automatic forfeiture. 

Adding to this burden, the DA’s office often
requires property owners to provide written
answers under oath to long lists of
questions, called “interrogatories.” Without
the assistance of counsel, replying to seven
pages of invasive probings like “Did you file
a federal, state, or local tax return since

ACLU of Pennsylvania


January 1995? If so, please identify which
ones you filed and when” can add days of
effort to what is already a long and tortuous

The burden of a forfeiture proceeding is
especially weighty when, as is true in most
cash cases, the property owner faces
charges in a related criminal proceeding.28
When the DA’s office declines to postpone
the forfeiture until after the completion of the
criminal case, property owners must choose
between protecting their property rights and
maintaining their constitutional privilege
against testifying. Defending against
forfeiture is even harder for owners who are
incarcerated while awaiting their criminal
trial. Most people understandably opt to
focus on their criminal case, with the result
that, in the 78% of cash forfeitures that
concluded before the related criminal case,
the DA’s office secured forfeiture 99% of the
time.29 In comparison, when the sequence
was reversed and the forfeiture concluded
after the criminal trial, the property owner’s
odds of success rose tenfold.30 

Answering stacks of interrogatories and
sacrificing constitutional protections might
seem like the lesser evil to a person who is
facing the loss of a home or a vehicle. But
more often than not, the value of the
property at stake doesn’t justify it. Between
2011 and 2013, half of all cash cases are
estimated to have involved sums less than
$192.31 When so little is at stake, hiring an
attorney isn’t rational. Indeed, simple math
dictates that property owners should almost
never contest forfeitures at that value, even
on their own. Taking off four days of work to

Guilty Property

Grandma’s Pension
Taken by Philly DA
After decades of manual labor as a
dockworker, Kevin Johnson* would
smoke the occasional joint to ease the
pain in his arthritic bones. 87-year-old
Carla Johnson* looked the other way
because she knew the drug gave her
husband relief.

One day in the summer of 2012,
Philadelphia police entered the Johnsons'
Hawthorne home and found two joints’
worth of marijuana under Kevin’s chair.
Kevin was scared but realistic.
Possession charges were a small price to
pay for help with his aches. 

But then a strange thing happened: an
officer went into an upstairs bedroom and
found the $2,000 Carla had saved up from
her pension checks. Carla tried to show
police documentation, but they ignored
her and confiscated the money — calling
it “illegal proceeds” from drug dealing.

Four months later, Kevin was acquitted of
all charges. The Johnsons figured they’d
get their cash back any day. Instead, they
received a letter saying the city was
seeking to forfeit $600 of Carla’s pension
money — no explanation was given about
the other $1,400. Kevin appeared at the
first court date and was informed that,
despite his acquittal, the city planned to
proceed with the forfeiture. 

Afterward the Johnsons talked to a lawyer
friend who told them to forget about the
cash. Their only chance, the friend said,
was to hire a decent attorney, but that
would cost more than the case was
worth. The Johnsons followed his advice
and gave up. 

A month later, the city forfeited Carla’s
$600 by default. The Johnsons still don’t
know what happened to the other


ACLU of Pennsylvania


FIGURE 4: Petty cash forfeitures take the fight out of property owners

~ 2,950 cases/yr

~ 1,150 cases/yr

~ 1,500 cases/yr

< $201

$201 - 400

$400 <




attend court — the median number of
appearances when a forfeiture is disputed —
would cost someone making minimum wage
$232.33 That’s a full 20% more than the
median property amount in cash forfeiture
cases and doesn’t even account for
expenses like travel, much less hiring a

Even the affirmation on the forfeiture
petitions — where prosecutors swear that
the “facts set forth in the foregoing petition
are true and correct to the best of his
knowledge, information, and belief” — bear
the same robotically penned signature,
raising questions about how closely
prosecutors screen cases before filing.36 

These cold economics bar most property
owners from disputing their case. As Figure

Even when prosecutors concede that a
property owner should have their money
returned, the DA’s office often doesn’t

4 demonstrates, the willingness of property
owners to show up for court plummets to
3% of all cases when the money involved
falls to $200 or under. As the value of
property at stake increases, the default rates
begin to drop. Even at sums as low as $401,
an estimated 26% of owners decide to
contest their case.34 

In contrast, regularly pursuing forfeitures of
$100, $50, and $20 makes excellent financial
sense for prosecutors.35 Because the DA’s
office files the same boilerplate petition in
every cash case, the costs of prosecuting
undisputed forfeitures is likely close to zero.

Guilty Property

FIGURE 5 shows the robo-signature that
appears on all of the cash petitions reviewed by
ACLU-PA (scanner resolution varied).37

ACLU of Pennsylvania


City Police Seize
Money from Neighbors
When police raided the boarding house
in North Philadelphia back in 2011, they
took all the money. 

They took the cash in the drug dealing
boarder’s second floor apartment. They
took the $2,000 in rent money Hank
Mosley* had in his third floor apartment.
And they took $1,500 of Tanya
Andrews’* hard-earned wages out of
her apartment. 

They took it all.

Tanya and Hank didn’t understand why:
They weren’t arrested. They weren’t
charged. Yet police had confiscated
their money like they had done
something wrong.

Three weeks later, the drug dealing
boarder received several letters from
the city saying it was seeking forfeiture
of the money found in his “possession.” 

But two of the letters listed the amounts
confiscated from Tanya and Hank’s
apartments. The boarder forwarded the
letters to Tanya and Hank who
immediately hired an attorney and filed
affidavits explaining the mix-up.

After eighteen months and five court
appearances, Tanya finally received a
hearing before a judge. The judge didn’t
buy the prosecutor’s evidence and
issued a rare denial of the city’s petition
for forfeiture.

Hank wasn’t so lucky. He’d moved to
Colorado six months back and couldn’t
afford to travel to Philadelphia for one
of the court dates. 

His $2,000 were forfeited by default.38


Guilty Property

withdraw the forfeiture petition. Instead, the
DA’s office presents property owners with a
so-called “settlement agreement” that
returns the property in exchange for
releasing the DA from all possible liability
related to the initial seizure of the cash.39 In
this way, law enforcement routinely shields
itself from the consequences of filing
unfounded forfeitures.

Both in Philadelphia and across the
nation, data on the percentage of people
who lose property to civil forfeitures without
ever being found guilty of a crime is scant.
One Philadelphia reporter conservatively
estimated the yearly income from these
innocent owner forfeitures in the hundreds of
thousands of dollars.40 After analyzing a
randomized sample of over 300 cash cases
f r o m 2 0 1 1 t o 2 0 1 3 , h o w e v e r, o u r
investigation revealed that even that startling
estimate is low. 

While all but 8% of property owners facing
cash forfeitures are charged with a crime
linked to the property seizure, only 68% are
ultimately convicted.41 Unfortunately for
property owners who are never found guilty
of a crime, legal innocence has only a small
effect on the outcome of cases — raising the
odds of avoiding forfeiture from an estimated
1.8% to 9.6%. Taken together these
statistics mean that law enforcement forfeits
at least $1 million in cash from some 1,500
innocent Philadelphians every year.42 

That figure doesn’t even account for the
additional 9% of cash forfeitures where the
property owner was convicted of only
possession of controlled substances.

ACLU of Pennsylvania


FIGURE 6: Many cash forfeitures
are not connected to a crime

Not Charged (8.4%)
Charged but Not Convicted (23.2%)
Convicted for Possession or Unrelated (9.3%)
Convicted for Sale or Related (59%)

Because forfeiture is only authorized when
money was derived from or used in a drug
transaction, prosecutors’ rationale for
forfeiting cash seized from these drug users
seems tenuous at best. It’s hard to imagine,
for example, how the money in the pocket of
someone convicted only of drug possession
could be the proceeds of that crime, or could
already have been used to buy drugs.
Despite this lack of logic, the DA’s office
secured forfeiture against convicted drug
possessors in every case we reviewed that
reached a final outcome.43


There are even more pronounced disparities
among cash forfeitures without supporting
convictions. An estimated 7 out of 10 people
whose cash is taken by Philadelphia law
enforcement even though they have not been
convicted of a crime are African-American.46
One explanation for this disparity is that
innocent African-Americans are more likely
to be subject to unfounded arrests and
property seizures in the first place, which
then spawn more forfeiture petitions.
Whatever the underlying driver, statistics like
this bring into stark relief the danger posed
by civil forfeiture — a law that gives
prosecutors sweeping powers and property
owners little protection.


Other Races

General Population



Owners Subject to Forfeiture

Another concerning effect of forfeiture
enforcement is its disproportionate impact
on African-American communities in
Philadelphia. Our investigation found that the
r a c i a l c o m p o s i t i o n o f t h e g ro u p o f
Philadelphians affected by forfeiture laws is
similar to the racial composition of the
people arrested for forfeitable offenses in
Philadelphia; African-Americans comprise

Guilty Property

approximately 60% of both groups.44 But
experts have suggested that Philadelphia’s
high rate of arrest for African-American
people results from racial bias in policing.45
This raises the question of whether law
enforcement bias (either conscious or
unconscious) is similarly responsible for the
racial disparity in Philadelphia’s enforcement
of civil asset forfeiture laws.



Owners Subject to Forfeiture Without Conviction



FIGURE 7: Philadelphia cash
forfeitures disproportionately
target African-Americans

ACLU of Pennsylvania


The findings of our investigation illuminate the realities of how civil asset forfeiture laws
are enforced on the ground. Far from only pursuing the ill-gotten gains of convicted drug
dealers, the Philadelphia DA’s office forfeits over $1 million in cash each year from some
1,500 people who were not convicted of any crime — the substantial majority of whom are
African-American. In most instances, these innocent owners are then systematically deprived
of any meaningful opportunity to contest the forfeitures, because fighting back is simply too
costly or notice is inadequate. The “troubling cases”47 are not the exception, as prosecutors
would have the public believe, but rather the
norm. Indeed, while our investigation was limited
to Philadelphia County, its findings suggest the
broader dangers inherent to a law rooted in a • 32% of cash forfeitures are filed
against people who have not been
basic contradiction: that the government can
found guilty of a crime

forfeit property connected to a crime without
proving that the owner is guilty. 

• Philadelphia DA’s share of forfeiture
funds equals approximately 7% of
appropriated budget

Sensible reform wouldn’t eliminate forfeiture as a
crime-fighting tool. Rather, it would replace the
• 34% of cash forfeitures suffer from
fiction that property is guilty with the truth that
improper notice

only people commit crimes. This fundamental
shift — from civil forfeiture to what is termed • Property owner’s odds of success
rise tenfold when cash forfeiture
“criminal forfeiture” — would mean that forfeiture
concludes after criminal case

would occur as part of the underlying criminal
case and only after the property owner is • For sums under $201, only 3% of
property owners dispute forfeiture

convicted. In that way, every person facing
forfeiture would receive the full range of • 71% of innocent owners in cash
cases are African-American
protections our founding fathers intended for


people accused of crimes. Meaningful reform
would also ensure forfeiture enforcement was democratically accountable by channeling the
proceeds from forfeiture into a general county or state fund that would be distributed through
the normal budgeting process, instead of directly into the coffers of law enforcement as an
off-budget revenue stream with no political oversight. Police and prosecutors would then be
required to fund forfeiture enforcement in the same way they fund every other type of
enforcement activity: by making requests through the regular budgeting process.

In cases where forfeiture is used appropriately — meaning against people convicted of
crimes and for legitimate crime-fighting purposes — these reforms would have little effect
and forfeiture rates would remain stable. But without reform, Philadelphia will likely continue
to seize millions of dollars of property from people who have not been found guilty of a crime,
without meaningful process or protections. And because the civil forfeiture laws that allow
this injustice are statewide, nothing will protect other counties against similar abuse of
forfeiture powers.

Guilty Property

ACLU of Pennsylvania



$13.8 million was generated from civil forfeitures
under the Pennsylvania Controlled Substances
Forfeiture Act, 42 Pa. C.S. §§ 6801-6802 in fiscal
year 2012 — the most recent year for which
forfeiture revenues are available. Office of the
Pennsylvania Attorney General, Asset Forfeiture
Report FY2011-12 (from ACLU-PA Right-to-Know
request). In that same year, $10.8 million was also
generated from the proceeds of federal forfeitures,
which the federal government shared with the
state and local agencies who participated in the
investigation or seizure culminating in the federal
forfeitures. Asset Forfeiture Program, Department
of Justice, Equitable Sharing Payments of Cash
and Sale Proceeds Executed during Fiscal Year
2012 - Pennsylvania,
reports-congress/fy2012-pennsylvania. However,
federal reports do not specify what percentage of
these equitable proceeds are from civil forfeiture
(as compared to criminal forfeiture). 


E.g., 42 Pa. C.S. §§ 6801-6802 (state civil
forfeiture statutes).


United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321, 330
(1998) (“The theory behind [civil forfeitures] was
the fiction that the action was directed against
‘guilty property,’ rather than against the offender


Commonwealth v. $6,425.00 Seized from Esquilin,
880 A.2d 523, 529 (Pa. 2005) (standard of proof in
civil forfeitures is preponderance of the evidence);
$9,847.00 U.S. Currency, 704 A.2d 612, 614-16
(Pa. 1997) (claimant contesting civil forfeiture of
currency has no right to appointed counsel). Note
that the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has
held out the possibility that claimants facing the
civil forfeiture of their homes may have a
constitutional right to counsel. Commonwealth v.
Real Property & Improvements at 2338 N.
Beechwood St., 65 A.3d 1055, 1067 n.24 (Pa.
Commw. Ct. 2013).



42 Pa. C.S. § 6801(e)-(g); Kaitlyn Foti, Berks D.A.,
Public Defender staffs to receive bonuses from
drug forfeitures, The Pottstown Mercury, Jan. 9,

This estimate is based on the $4.8 million
Philadelphia law enforcement received in income
in fiscal year 2012. Attorney General, Report
FY2011-12, 55. According to the most recent
available sharing agreement between the DA and
police department, the DA receives $727,500 out
of the initial $927,500 in income and then 40%
after that. Office of the Philadelphia District

Guilty Property

Attorney, Forfeiture Proceeds Sharing Agreement
(from ACLU-PA Right-to-Know request). This nets
out to $2,243,071, which was equal to 7.28% of
the DA’s appropriated budget of $31,310,000 for
that same year. See City of Philadelphia, Annual
Report - For Fiscal Year Ended June 2012, http://


Because the sharing agreements for other
counties were not available, this estimate was
based on multiplying the percentage of forfeiture
proceeds received by the Philadelphia DA’s office
(41.47%) into the forfeiture income received in the
next ten most populous counties. See Attorney
General, Report FY2011-12. Using this formula,
forfeiture revenues received by the DAs in Bucks
(estimated share of forfeiture proceeds was
$396,998 = 4.57% of budget), Dauphin ($292,907
= 6.59%), Delaware ($335,595 = 6.07%), and
Montgomery ($594,841 = 4.66%) would total
approximately 5% of their budgets in fiscal year
2012. This suggests that practices in those
counties deserve further study. Unfortunately, for
many counties, the AOPC lacks the data it has for
civil forfeiture in Philadelphia County. (Note that
the budget figure for FY2012 was unavailable for
Delaware County and that the figure for FY2015
was used for the calculation.)


This heat map was created by plotting the address
of every claimant from our randomized sample of
cash forfeitures. Review of Random Sample of 351
Civil Forfeiture Cash Cases from 2011-13,
obtained from the First Judicial District (copies of
court records on file with ACLU-PA).


Brad Cates & John Yoder, Government selfinterest corrupted a crime-fighting tool into an evil,
Washington Post, Sept. 18, 2014, http://

10. Isaiah Thompson, The Cash Machine, Philadelphia
City Paper, Nov. 28, 2012,

11. Isaiah Thompson, Law to Clean Up ‘Nuisances’
Costs Innocent People Their Homes, ProPublica,
Aug. 5, 2013,

ACLU of Pennsylvania


12. Gil Smart & Susan Baldrige, Civil asset forfeiture:
policing for profit?, LancasterOnline, Nov. 2, 2014,

13. Andrew Staub, Lawmakers, advocacy groups
pushing for civil asset forfeiture reform, PA
Independent, Jan. 14, 2015, http://

14. Rufus Seth Williams, City must keep forfeiture
laws, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 1, 2015, http://
20150301_City_must_keep_forfeiture _laws.html.

15. Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts
Summary Data Listing All Civil Forfeiture Petitions
Filed in Philadelphia County from 2011-13,
obtained through ACLU-PA Court Records
Request (data on file with ACLU-PA).

21. This estimate comes from multiplying the first
listing forfeiture rate (87%) into the money
Philadelphia law enforcement received from cash
forfeitures in the most recent year for which data is
available ($3,818,973). See supra note 8; see also
supra note 15; Attorney General, Report
FY2011-12, 55.

22. 42 Pa. C.S. § 6802(b)-(e).

23. Review of 99 Proofs of Notice for Cash Cases
Filed in 2013, obtained from Office of the
Philadelphia District Attorney (copies of proofs of
notice on file with ACLU-PA).

24. This estimate comes from multiplying the improper
notice rate (34%) into the money Philadelphia law
enforcement received from cash forfeitures
($3,818,973) in the most recent year for which data
is available. See supra note 23; Attorney General,
Report FY 2011-12, 55. Note that the improper
notice rate is from 2013 while the income figure is
from FY2012.

25. Thompson, Cash Machine, supra note 10.

16. For example, Philadelphia reported $3,818,973 in
revenues from cash forfeitures in fiscal year 2012.
Attorney General, Report FY2011-12, 55.

17. This estimate comes from, first, taking the total
number of non-real-estate forfeiture petitions filed
annually (~5,740) and multiplying that number by
— 97.2% — the percentage of cases from our
initial sample of 396 non-real-estate forfeitures
that involved cash (as opposed to other types of
non-real-estate property like cars). This adjusted
figure was then divided by the total number of
forfeiture cases filed annually, including real estate
cases (~6,036), to yield the estimate. See supra
note 8; see also supra note 15.

18. Attorney General, Report FY2011-12. In many
counties, the vast majority of forfeitures are of
cash. For example, in fiscal year 2012, Allegheny
County forfeited 17 cars and no real estate but
made $826,001 from cash forfeitures. Id. at 7.
Over that same span, Montgomery County
forfeited 13 vehicles, no real estate, and
$1,215,531 in cash. Id. at 50.

19. See supra note 8.

20. In our sample, first listing forfeitures accounted for
87.97% of the cases that reached a final outcome.
See supra note 8. The report quotes the slightly
more conservative 86.57% first listing forfeiture
rate derived from the data provided by the AOPC,
even though that data set includes some
forfeitures involving cars and other types of
property. See supra note 15.

Guilty Property

26. See supra note 15.

27. Interrogatories from Civil Forfeiture Case Filed in
2011, obtained from the First Judicial District
(copy on file with ACLU-PA).

28. In our sample, 92% of property owners faced
charges in a related criminal case. See supra note

29. Id. Note that the DA’s office sometimes holds
forfeiture proceedings in abeyance until after the
disposition of the criminal case, but only if the
property owner appears at each listing for the
forfeiture case. Thompson, Cash Machine. Our
review of cash forfeitures, however, uncovered a
significant percentage of cases where a claimant
disputed the forfeiture but the case was
nonetheless concluded before the disposition of
the parallel criminal proceeding. See supra note 8.

30. Id. To be precise, property owners avoided
forfeiture in 12.5% of the cases that concluded
after the criminal case as compared to in 1.2% of
the cases that concluded before the criminal case.
31. Id.

32. Interview with “Kevin Johnson” & “Carla Johnson,”
Forfeiture Claimants in 2012 Case (March 23,
2015) (on file with ACLU-PA); Court Record for
“Kevin Johnson” Civil Forfeiture Case, obtained
from the First Judicial District (copy on file with
ACLU-PA). Pseudonyms were used to protect
these individuals from possible retaliation. 

ACLU of Pennsylvania


33. The state minimum wage is $7.25. Pennsylvania
Department of Labor & Industry, “New
Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Requirements FAQ,”

34. For Figure 4, the number of cases falling into each
amount range was estimated by using the
percentages drawn from our sample (52.8% under
$201; 20.5% from $201-$400; and 26.7% above
$400) and multiplying them into the estimated
overall number of cash forfeiture cases per year
(~5,600). See supra note 8; see also supra note 15. 

35. In our review of nearly 400 forfeiture court files,
one of the records that was excluded due to the
incompleteness of the file was a mass forfeiture of
50 sums of money, each for under $50. Court
Record for 50 Civil Forfeitures of under $50 Filed
in 2011, obtained from the First Judicial District
(copy on file with ACLU-PA). Unlike a typical
forfeiture case file, which contains a property
receipt, forfeiture petition, and notice letter, the file
for this mass forfeiture contained only one
document with information about the claimants —
a long list of names, amounts seized, and property
receipt numbers. Further investigation uncovered
an additional record like this and court
administration confirmed that records for
forfeitures of sums under $50 were routinely filed
in this manner. Unfortunately, because of the
incompleteness of the file, the mass forfeiture had
to be excluded from our calculations, which
means that overall default rates are likely higher
and the mean value of property forfeited lower
than what is estimated in this report.

36. See supra note 8.

37. Id.

38. Interview with Attorney of “Tanya Andrews” and
“Hank Mosley,” Forfeiture Claimants in 2011 Case
(April 2015) (on file with ACLU-PA); Court Record
for “Tanya Andrews” Civil Forfeiture Case,
obtained from the First Judicial District (copy on
file with ACLU-PA). Pseudonyms were used to
protect these individuals from possible retaliation.

39. Settlement Agreement from Civil Forfeiture Case
Filed in 2012, obtained from First Judicial District
(copy on file with ACLU-PA).

40. Thompson, Cash Machine, supra note 10.

41. See supra note 8.

42. This income estimate comes from multiplying the
percentage of people in our sample set facing
forfeiture who were not found guilty of a crime

Guilty Property

(32%) into the annual income generated by money
forfeitures ($3,818,973). See supra note 8;
Attorney General, Report FY2011-12, 55. This
number was then adjusted for the slightly higher
rate at which owners who were not found guilty of
a crime avoid forfeiture (a 9.6% forfeiture
avoidance rate compared to a 1.8% forfeiture
avoidance rate for property owners convicted of a
crime). See supra note 8. The resulting figure was
rounded down to the number quoted in the report
— $1 million — and represents a conservative
lower bound for yearly revenues from these type of
forfeitures. E.g., Attorney General, Report
FY2010-11, 54 (income generated by money
forfeitures was $4,286,074 in FY2011, which,
using this formula, translates to ~$1,290,000 in
cash forfeitures from property owners who were
not found guilty of a crime for that year).

43. Of the forfeitures in our sample involving property
owners who were convicted of only drug
possession, all 29 cases that reached a final
disposition ended in forfeiture. See supra note 8.
Note that a small minority of the civil forfeitures
reviewed in our sample were for non-narcoticsrelated offenses like gambling and prostitution.
Forfeiture is authorized for these types of offenses
by separate statutes or court decisions. However,
in other cases, the charged offense was not one
for which forfeiture is authorized (e.g. resisting
arrest) and convictions for these offenses were
sorted into the “Convicted for Possession or
Unrelated” category in Figure 6.

44. See supra note 8. The 60% figure comes from the
arrest data from 2011-13 in Philadelphia County
for a wide range of forfeitable offenses including
drug possession, drug sale, prostitution, gambling,
and liquor law violations. Summary Arrest Report
for County: PHILADELPHIA, Pa. Uniform Crime
Reporting System, query created at http://

45. This issue is discussed in more detail in the
Plaintiffs’ expert report filed in ACLU-PA’s litigation
challenging the Philadelphia Police Department’s
stop-and-frisk practices. See Plaintiffs’ Fifth
Report to the Court and Monitor on Stop and Frisk
Practices, Bailey v. City of Philadelphia (2013) (C.A.
No. 10-5952), available at

46. As Figure 7 indicates, 71% of the property owners
in our sample who faced forfeiture but were not
convicted of a crime were African-American. See
supra note 8.

47. Staub, Lawmakers, advocacy groups, supra note

ACLU of Pennsylvania


Methodology & Credits
The primary data set used for this report
was acquired through a records request to
the central court administrator for the state,
the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania
Courts. These records compiled information
on every civil forfeiture petition that was
filed between 2011 and 2013 in Philadelphia
County. The data was segmented into two
categories — forfeitures involving real estate
and those for all other types of property. 


We sorted the non-real-estate forfeiture
cases using a standard randomization
function and selected 396 cases for review.
We retrieved and scanned the court files for
these cases. We then excluded 35 cases
where the file was missing or incomplete or
the claimant was unknown or a juvenile. We
excluded 10 cases because they involved
property other than cash (e.g. cars). 

Data Analysis

To determine whether the forfeiture petition
corresponded to a criminal charge or
conviction, we used information in the court
file, including the claimant’s name, date of
birth, and criminal history identifier number,
to retrieve the owner’s official court
summary listing all of the criminal cases
against that person. Any criminal case with
an arrest date within one year of the seizure
date listed in the forfeiture file was treated
as related for the purposes of our analysis. 

To determine racial patterns related to
enforcement, we also used each claimant’s
official court summary, which lists the
claimant’s race.

Scott Kelly

Sara Mullen

Molly Tack-Hooper

Scott Kelly

Scott Kelly

Jon Dilks

Mayan Katz

Garrett Cardillo

Laura de los Santos Hidalgo

David Nows

Brenna Stewart

Brandi Lupo

Peter Mardian

David Pupkin

Joseph Stine

Mariam Ahmed

Chelsea Fish

Jon Thielen

Jonathan Wheeler

Christoph Pamberg

Special Thanks
David Abrams

The confidence interval for both the 68%
conviction rate and 63% African-American
rate is approximately ±5% at a confidence
level of 95%.

Guilty Property

ACLU of Pennsylvania


Guilty Property

American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania

ACLU of Pennsylvania