Sam Leino was ultimately convicted on a single charge of possessing prescription drugs with intent to distribute. For that, his wife and their three children are homeless. Welcome to the wonderful world of asset forfeiture.
The Philadelphia DA brings 300 to 600 real-estate forfeiture cases per year, and thousands of cases against small amounts of cash seized in police stops that sometimes, but not always, result in arrests — together bringing nearly $6 million into its coffers annually.
In a series of reports for City Paper [“The Cash Machine,” Nov. 29, 2012] and ProPublica, this reporter has documented how the Philadelphia DA has made civil forfeiture into a vast, unaudited revenue stream, profiting from an upside-down legal process through which the DA has the power to bleed property owners dry of financial resources and imperil homeowners with minimal or no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Sandra Leino’s is just one of these stories — but one that casts in sharp relief the difference between the way the District Attorney’s Office describes the goals of its forfeiture programs to the public and the way those targeted by forfeiture experience it.
The Philadelphia DA characterizes its forfeiture program not as a revenue generator but as a public service: depriving criminals of the spoils of their crimes, abating “nuisance properties” that terrorize neighborhoods and, according to a recent statement, working to “establish responsible property ownership.” But Sandra Leino’s story paints a very different picture of how the DA uses forfeiture — less like a scalpel than a battering ram.
Because the owner of a piece of property -- be it land, cash, a car, or a home -- needn't even be charged to lose the property under forfeiture laws, the Leinos had already lost their home by the time Sam Leino was convicted on that single charge. (Despite the conviction, the family maintains that he possessed the drugs for personal use after an automobile accident.) In fact, the government can actually freeze your assets before any proceedings begin, making it difficult to hire legal representation for either your criminal trial, or to go to court to reclaim your property. In this case, the Philadelphia DA's office actually evicted Sandra Leino and her children from their home, rendering them homeless until a relative took them in.
The office of Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams eventually withdrew the claim on the Leino home, but only after the family had fallen behind on their mortgage payments and the bank foreclosed, meaning that the home was no longer theirs for the government to take from them.
According to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that has been challenging asset forfeiture laws across the country, Pennsylvania's law is among the worst in America.
Law enforcement agencies can forfeit property based on a mere “preponderance of the evidence,” which is a much less stringent standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal convictions.
Plus, property owners have to prove their innocence, reversing both the burden of proof and centuries of jurisprudence. In other words, in civil forfeiture proceedings, property owners actually have fewer protections than accused criminals.
Not only that, under Pennsylvania state law, police can keep 100 percent of all proceeds seized from civil forfeiture. In fact, the Philadelphia DA has raked in more than $6 million a year in civil forfeiture proceeds.
Most of this policing for profit is from cash seizures. But “the average amount of cash seized by Philadelphia police was $550 — hardly the proceeds of a Pablo Escobar or a Walter White.” No wonder a Pennsylvania judge has lambasted civil forfeiture as “little more than state-sanctioned theft.”
That kind of perverse incentive seems like an invitation for corruption.
And wouldn't you know it . . .
Four of the police officers who surveilled and arrested Sam Leino are among a group of six narcotics officers whose credibility has been effectively dismissed by the DA’s Office itself after allegations were made in open court that they were part of a drug-dealing ring within the Philadelphia Police Department.
The DA has been systematically dropping cases brought by these officers, including about 285 prosecutions mostly related to felony drug arrests. But Sam Leino’s conviction still stands. How many times the DA’s forfeiture unit has seized property based on the testimony of these officers is not presently clear.
According to the City Paper, Leino's conviction was based on police officers who testified they "observed Sam handing over small objects in exchange for money outside the house." It isn't clear if the specific officers dismissed for corruption were the same officers who testified against Leino. But it also isn't difficult to see how a policy that basically amounts to legalized theft could quickly undermine respect for the rule of law among the public servants we ask to enforce it.
The author of the City Paper piece, Isaiah Thompson, then points to more stories from Philadelphia in an article for the Pacific Standard.
In October 2009, police raided the house and charged her son, Andrew, then 24, with selling eight packets of crack cocaine to an undercover informant. (Upon entering the house, police reported finding unused packets, though not drugs, in a rear bedroom.) Rochelle Bing was not present and was not accused of a crime. Yet she soon received a frightening letter from the Philadelphia district attorney’s office. Because Andrew had sold the drugs from inside his mother’s house, a task force of law enforcement officials moved to seize Bing’s house. They filed a court claim, quickly approved, that gave Bing just 30 days to dissuade a judge from granting “a decree of forfeiture” that would give the DA’s office title to the property. Bing was devastated.
“For me to lose my home,” she recalled recently, “for them to take that from me, knowing I had grandchildren—that would have hurt me more than anything.” And so Bing resolved to do what whatever was necessary to keep the house.
She had no idea how long and how difficult that fight would be . . .
Other similar cases reviewed by ProPublica include an elderly widow, two sisters who shared a house, a waitress and hospital worker caring for two children, and a mother of three whose family wound up homeless. All stemmed from drug charges brought against a family member.
The cost of hiring an attorney to win the money back is well over that average seizure of $550. According to Thomas, one family was forced to go to court 17 times in an effort to win their house back. Fortunately, that particular family had an attorney who had agreed to take their case for free. But that attorney also told Thomas that had he charged them his regular rate, the bill would have exceeded the value of the house. And because these are civil proceedings, in many states indigent property owners have no right to a court-appointed attorney.
All of which means there's really no recourse for most people facing forfeiture of their property. Which may be why, according to author Isaiah Thompson, of the 2,000 claims filed in the city between 2008 and 2012, only 30 saw the property returned to its owner. To be fair, in a high percentage of those cases, that may well be because the owner was indeed guilty. But most people who lose property from civil asset forfeiture are never criminally charged.
Civil asset forfeiture also provides a strong incentive to profile, pull over, and harass motorists, then violate their Fourth Amendment rights with car searches based on alerts from unreliable drug-sniffing dogs. (I've written here at HuffPost about police agencies who have used drug dog alerts to actually seize bail money brought in by the family of the accused.) It's one of the driving forces behind the mass militarization of America's police forces. It's really one of the most awful, destructive, unfair policies to be spit out by the modern drug war. And that's saying something. There's been a hell of a lot of competition.