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Is A Philadelphia Agency’s Seizure Of Vehicles A New Form of Civil Asset Forfeiture?

The city’s experiment with civil asset forfeiture was supposed to end, but the practices of its parking agency and some in state law enforcement suggest that police may be turning to other forms of property confiscation.

The Philadelphia skyline.Photo illustration by Anagraph/Photo by Chris Montcalmo/Getty.

In November 2017, I.B. of Philadelphia was arrested on assault charges after a boyfriend, who she said was abusive, accused her of striking him with an SUV. City police picked her up after spotting the vehicle parked on the street weeks later. I.B. maintained her innocence but was cuffed and thrown in a squad car. She then watched in disbelief as an officer hopped in her 2002 Jeep Liberty and drove off.

Although the charges against I.B. were eventually dropped, she never saw her vehicle again. Police sold the Jeep at auction for $1,155 in storage fees they had assessed while the case made its way through the court system.

Philadelphia’s decades-long experiment with civil asset forfeiture—which allows police to seize and then keep or sell property that they allege is involved in a crime even if the owner is not arrested or convicted of a crime—is supposed to be drawing to a close. In September, the city agreed to a $3 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by people whose cash, cars, and even homes were seized and sold by city police and prosecutors. The city also agreed to a raft of reforms, including toughening the standards for confiscation, which barred police from seizing assets for simple drug possession.

“The settlement will hopefully serve as a model for other cities who are pursuing to reform their profit-driven forfeiture programs,” said Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that represented plaintiffs in the case.

But attorneys and advocates say that as civil asset forfeiture revenue dwindles, I.B.’s case shows that police are turning to other forms of property confiscation. Her vehicle was one of hundreds that police auctioned off annually with the help of the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA), the city’s parking ticket and towing agency.

Her charges were dismissed,” Molly Tack-Hooper, an attorney at the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU, told The Appeal. “But the paperwork from PPA still said that she owed fines for the cost of having towed her car to use as evidence against her.”

PPA spokesperson Marty O’Rourke disputed the view that the auctions of impounded vehicles over police fees were analogous to civil asset forfeiture, because the agency made an effort to return I.B.’s property before auction—after the fees had been paid, of course.

But I.B. says she never received notice of the auction. She didn’t understand why she should be liable for associated fees at all, a sum that almost exceeded the total value of her nearly two-decade-old Jeep.

Tack-Hooper added that many targets of such auctions often don’t understand the process or how to appeal these sales, as there’s no legal right to counsel in auction proceedings.

“People need to receive notice of the legal basis for the auction, and the legal and factual basis for the vehicle having been taken in the first place,” she said. “Without knowing what law is being invoked against you, it’s impossible to prepare a defense, even if you have a lawyer.”

Tack-Hooper said that she had represented several clients whose vehicles were impounded by police, ostensibly as evidence. Much like in civil asset forfeiture, police then petition a judge to have the vehicle auctioned with the help of the PPA over uncollected storage fees and pocket the revenue.

“The government should not be charging people fees for having impounded their vehicles as evidence against them in criminal charges if there was no conviction,” she said.

Lou Rulli, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, sees little distinction between these auctions and civil asset forfeiture: Both involve the state taking private property without a finding of guilt and make it difficult or costly for owners to retrieve their possessions.

“In some ways, it’s worse than civil forfeiture because these practices may not have the same powerful legal defenses that attach to civil forfeiture,” Rulli said. “And, like civil forfeiture, the impact often falls most heavily upon those who can least afford it with the loss of private property, even temporarily, jeopardizing employment, medical care, and the like.”

I.B. is hardly alone in her experience. The PPA’s O’Rourke said the agency had auctioned 157 vehicles in conjunction with the Philadelphia police this year. And other Pennsylvania jurisdictions conduct similar sales, sometimes at a similarly profound human cost.

In 2014, Karin Foley and her husband, Willis, were moving from New York State to South Carolina when their vehicle blew a tire in Pennsylvania. When Willis Foley pulled the car over and got out to change the tire, a semi struck and killed him. Pennsylvania State Police later determined that the truck driver had been at the wheel for nearly 30 hours straight.

But the state troopers who responded to the accident impounded the Foleys’ diesel pickup and a horse trailer packed with their possessions as evidence. Like I.B., Karin Foley never saw the truck, the trailer, or any of her belongings again.

The criminal case against the trucker dragged on for three years but never made it to trial. In May, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. State police called Foley a few months later to tell her that she had one week to travel to Pennsylvania—hundreds of miles from her South Carolina home—or they would auction her truck and trailer.

“I teach school in August, so I can’t just leave and go to Pennsylvania,” Foley told The Appeal. “And it’s a diesel truck that’s been sitting for four years. So it was doubtful it’s drivable, let alone for 600 miles.”

Foley contacted an attorney, who tried to negotiate a deal with the state police involving the repair of her truck. The negotiations never came to fruition. She received another phone call from the troopers informing her that the truck and trailer had been auctioned to a local salvage yard.

Unlike I.B., Foley was never accused of a crime, she was the victim of a negligent act that resulted in her husband’s death. Now, she feels like law enforcement profited from her pain.

“After the accident, there was nothing left of my husband, but the coroner charged me something like $175 for the zipper bag they put him in,” she said. “The auction just feels like more money made off of my misery … I really feel like I was revictimized.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to remove the name of a woman whose car was seized by Philadelphia police.