Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
Legislation before state House lawmakers would crack down on human trafficking, especially sexual slavery, in Pennsylvania. But the measure would also expand the opportunities for a tool known as civil asset forfeiture.
Under the proposal, if a person is accused of trafficking in people, any property he or she uses to do that could be seized by law enforcement.
Civil asset forfeiture can be a boon to law enforcement agency budgets. It allows the taking of property, like a car, used to commit a crime, without requiring the person in question be found guilty of the alleged crime. The property can be auctioned off later, with proceeds staying with the law enforcement agency.
"I don't think anyone in law enforcement that's worked on this bill is assuming that any significant amount of money will necessarily come in as a result of the bill," said Greg Rowe, legislative liaison for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which helped write the bill that passed the state Senate and is before the House. Rowe said asset forfeiture is a small part of the measure.
"The purpose of the forfeiture provision is really to be able to take the assets of those wrongdoers who are profiting from modern-day slavery, so to speak... not as a fundraising technique for law enforcement," he said.
But the Polaris Project, a national organization that has advocated for a tougher human trafficking law in Pennsylvania and across the country, does portray civil asset forfeiture as a way to bring in revenue needed to pursue labor- and sex-trafficking cases.
"It's seen as being a potential benefit to law enforcement agencies," said Britanny Vanderhoof, policy counsel at the Polaris Project.
"These cases are complex and expensive to investigate," she said, referring to human trafficking prosecutions. "This is a way to recoup that cost."
Asset forfeiture language is in Polaris' model legislation against human trafficking, and by the organization's count, 37 out of 51 states (including Washington, D.C.) have included the language in their update to criminal statutes against labor and sex trafficking.
"Some states... have designated a certain amount of assets seized and that money goes towards funding victims services," Vanderhoof said.
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