Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
Despite years of criticism of the state’s asset forfeiture laws, Pennsylvania lawmakers approved a new human trafficking law that expands law enforcement’s ability to seize assets of the accused, without any statutory oversight of where seized property and proceeds end up.
Under the law signed last month, prosecutors could seize assets from someone charged with human trafficking absent any conviction. Those assets could be sold, and proceeds would pay for the costs of the investigation. Whatever’s left over would then be divided between the local district attorney who charged the case and state programs, including victims’ services.
There is no required audit of the proceeds, something civil liberties advocates say could lead to abuses.
Contrast that with Pennsylvania’s existing asset forfeiture law for cases involving drugs and terrorism. That law requires counties to audit, every year, how much is seized and who gets the money from the sale of seized property. The new law, which governs asset forfeiture in human trafficking cases, has no such auditing requirement.
Law enforcement officials say asset forfeiture is a useful tool that can shut down criminal operations. Women’s rights advocates point to the share of proceeds from seized assets that would go into victims’ services.
But at least one state judge has condemned the state’s law allowing assets to be seized from people charged in relation to a drug case. Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini likened civil asset forfeiture to governmental plunder.
The Institute for Justice (IJ), which bills itself as a “merry band of libertarian litigators,” has also been critical of Pennsylvania for its civil asset forfeiture law:
“The government can civilly forfeit property by a preponderance of the evidence showing that the property is related to a crime and subject to forfeiture, a standard significantly lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard required for a criminal conviction. And property owners, not the government, bear the burden of proof in innocent owner claims, making property owners effectively guilty until proven innocent.”
Pennsylvania’s new human trafficking law also allows assets to be seized from someone charged with human trafficking, even without a conviction.
“That can be dangerous,” said Larry Salzman, a lawyer with IJ. “It’s one thing for law enforcement to have forfeiture as a tool to punish criminals. It can be dangerous for property owners to have to prove their own innocence.”
He said having no oversight over the proceeds from asset forfeiture in human trafficking cases could be a red flag.
“For sure,” Salzman said. “I would definitely be concerned about that in Pennsylvania law.”
The major beneficiaries of the law are district attorneys’ offices that prosecute human trafficking and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, a state agency. Kirsten Kenyon, director of research for the PCCD, acknowledged there appears to be no oversight over the disbursement of proceeds from seized assets in human trafficking cases. The PCCD would get 70 percent of proceeds, after paying any costs of the initial investigation.
A state Senate staffer involved in the drafting of the law explained that lawmakers’ focus was strictly on human trafficking, creating harsher penalties and clearer definitions of the crime, especially with regard to sex trafficking.
Lawmakers working on the proposal also sought the recommendations of the Polaris Project, a national advocacy group seeking tougher state penalties on human slave labor and sexual slavery. The group’s model legislation includes asset forfeiture.
"It's seen as being a potential benefit to law enforcement agencies," said Polaris Project’s policy counsel Britanny Vanderhoof when speaking to WITF earlier this year.
"These cases are complex and expensive to investigate," Vanderhoof said. "This is a way to recoup that cost."
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