The Cash Machine

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
An investigation by City Paper into the Philadelphia District Attorney's civil asset forfeiture process reveals a “seize first, ask questions later” policy when it comes to seizing individuals’ alleged crime money.
The Cash Machine
The Cash Machine
The Cash Machine

This story was made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. 

When Philadelphia Police officers stopped Dwayne Marks as he was driving north on Broad Street near Temple University last year, Marks says he wasn’t particularly worried. Marks, who is a black man in his late 30s from East Mount Airy, has faced drug charges in the past — but he’s straightened up, he says. When the police asked whether he had a criminal background, “I told them, ‘Yeah,’” he recalls. “I told them the truth.” 

As he saw it, he had done nothing wrong and had nothing to hide. And so, when police asked to search his truck, Marks said they could go ahead. 

He describes the encounter, initially that is, as calm. It was when police found more than $6,000 in cash in his car — money he says was related to a number of rental properties he owns, he says — that things changed.

“They … took me down to the district, handcuffed me, took my money … [searched] my whole truck again. Then they got a dog to sniff my whole truck out — and still didn’t find nothing.” There were no drugs on Marks or on his vehicle; no charges were filed. But the interaction wasn’t over, Marks says: “They got mad. … They said, ‘We’re going to make you go to court for your money, then.’”

Marks would soon find himself sucked into a strange, upside-down corner of the legal system, where the burden of proof would be reversed to rest on the accused, where those opposing him would seem to call the shots — and where the minor matter of his undisputed innocence of any charge would not seem to be a factor.

That police officers regularly confiscate cash from persons arrested in Philadelphia might not come as a surprise. State law allows police to seize money — and other personal property, including cars, guns, even real estate — from suspected criminals, as possible evidence in a criminal trial.

What you might not know is that that money is likely destined to become not just evidence but revenue for the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office prosecuting the case — long before those alleged drug dealers are ever proven guilty or innocent in court, and often regardless of the outcome of any criminal proceedings.

By way of a process known as “civil asset forfeiture,” carried out in Philly by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, the DA may sue to take ownership of confiscated property and, if successful, keep it.

The law’s intent is straightforward enough: to target drug criminals (and, to a lesser extent, other types of criminals) by going after the proceeds and mechanisms of their crimes, and to use those ill-gotten gains for the benefit of the public.

The implementation, though, is more complicated. In Philadelphia, the law has laid the framework for a civil asset forfeiture program that brings in upwards of $6 million a year from cases against thousands of Philadelphians, with little oversight of how cases are pursued or how profits are distributed. And, as Marks learned all too well, that process has little regard for a property owner’s guilt or innocence. 

An investigation by City Paper, assisted by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, into the Philadelphia District Attorney’s civil asset forfeiture process reveals one of the largest American municipal-forfeiture programs for which City Paper has seen statistics, and one that operates with great efficiency largely by allowing questions of guilt, innocence or whether a crime has even been alleged to come last, if at all. 

While the District Attorney’s Office files hundreds of cases each year seeking the forfeiture of real estate, this process is in many ways separate and distinct from the thousands of cases it files against seized currency or cash. It is the latter that brings in the bulk of forfeiture revenue — about $4.5 million — and City Paper focused primarily on currency forfeitures for this story.

CP analyzed records for thousands of forfeiture cases, spent weeks monitoring legal proceedings and spoke with many individuals caught up in the process of attempting to reclaim their property. The picture that emerged was a kind of “seize first, ask questions later” policy in forfeiting individuals’ money. You might think of it as a corollary to the better-known (and controversial) policy of “stop and frisk” that exists here and in other cities. Call it “stop and seize,” a legal dragnet that catches the innocent, guilty and unaccused alike. 


The idea that the government can seize “criminal” property without proving a criminal case isn’t unique to Philadelphia. Civil asset forfeiture is based on a legal concept that dates back in America to colonial times, when the British used the principle to seize ships carrying smuggled cargo. The basis was what is known in legal terms as in rem jurisdiction, the concept that a court can exercise power over property itself. Technically, it’s the property — not its owner — that’s being accused of criminality, which means the property can be subject to forfeiture whether or not its owner is ever convicted of a crime.

Until recently in American history, civil asset forfeiture remained a fairly obscure area of the law. That changed in the 1980s, when Congress greatly expanded the powers of the federal government in pursuing forfeiture cases and opened the door for states to follow suit. Many states created or expanded their own forfeiture programs. Pennsylvania was no exception.

Over the past few years, civil asset forfeiture has received increasing attention — and criticism. The Wall Street Journal has recently chronicled the ballooning size and scope of the federal forfeiture program (including actions against property owners who were never charged with crimes), feeding a federal civil asset forfeiture fund that has tripled in size in the last decade. A 2010 report titled “Policing for Profit” by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian civil-liberties law firm, attempted to survey the incredible breadth of state and local forfeiture programs, giving each state a grade based on the level of protection state laws afford property owners: Pennsylvania was one of 17 states that got a ‘D’. 

But there exists very little hard data on such programs anywhere, including Pennsylvania. As the Institute for Justice report put it, “In most states, we know nothing or next to nothing about the use of civil forfeiture or its proceeds.”

Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture apparatus has been in place under previous district attorneys for the last couple decades, and appears to remain more or less unchanged so far under the new administration of District Attorney Seth Williams.  Through an analysis of years’ worth of court records, CP attempted to gain an understanding of Philadelphia’s forfeiture program, and found that, in size, scope and what you might call aggressiveness, it is in a class of its own. 

The Philadelphia DA pursues virtually every nickel seized by Philadelphia police officers; it does so without regard to the owner’s guilt or innocence; and it makes fighting to retrieve assests difficult and/or costly enough that few, innocent or not, will ever see their property returned.

Take as a point of comparison Allegheny County, which contains Pittsburgh and is the second-largest county in Pennsylvania (after Philadelphia County). The Allegheny DA has filed roughly 200 civil forfeiture petitions since 2008.

In 2011 alone, the Philadelphia District Attorney filed 6,560 such cases.

It is a scale of magnitude that dwarfs forfeiture operations elsewhere in Pennsylvania — and that brings in substantially more revenue: more than $6 million annually in recent years, an amount equivalent to roughly one-sixth of the entire annual city budget allocated to the Philadelphia DA. Between 2004 and 2009, Philadelphia collected some $36 million via civil forfeiture — double the take of the three next-largest counties combined. 

What accounts for the difference? One reason is that forfeiture in Allegheny County is generally pursued as part of the criminal, not civil, process. The county does forfeit currency and other property in thousands of cases each year — but generally does so only after a criminal conviction is secured, says Mike Manko, a spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office. As the role of forfeiture in Pennsylvania expanded, he says, the county’s president judge ordered that forfeitures involving criminal matters be handled in criminal court. One consequence of that decision: “In virtually all cases wherein a defendant is found not guilty of the controlled substance charge(s),” Manko says, “seized currency is returned.” Not so in Philadelphia, where forfeiture is pursued outside and irrespective of the criminal process.

The size of Philly’s forfeiture program isn’t just unprecedented within Pennsylvania. In 2010, for example, Kings County (Brooklyn), with a population 1.5 times that of Philadelphia, reported taking by forfeiture about $1.2 million in assets — less than one-fifth of what Philly took. Los Angeles County, with a population more than six-and-a-half times Philadelphia’s, also successfully sued to keep just $1.2 million in seized assets.

Those numbers aren’t direct comparisons: They don’t include sums collected via a federal “equitable sharing” program in which forfeitures are outsourced to federal agencies, with local law enforcement keeping most of the proceeds. But these programs also contain certain safeguards not present in Philly: Namely, federal guidelines stipulate a minimum amount for seizure of $2,000.

Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture unit, by contrast, amasses its impressive annual take by itself pursuing thousands of vastly smaller cases — and many, many more of them. 

In 2010, for example, Los Angeles County’s 48 successful forfeiture cases raised about $25,000 per case. In the same year, the Philadelphia District Attorney filed more than 8,000 forfeiture cases for currency alone, for an average of just $550. In a sample of more than 100 cases from 2011 and 2012 reviewed by City Paper, the median amount was only $178. In many of these cases, the Philadelphia District Attorney sued to seize amounts less than $100.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, in other words, isn’t just one of the most lucrative municipal  forfeiture units around; it also might be the pettiest.  

The implications are perhaps bigger than these unassuming amounts suggest. To be as massive a forfeiture operation as it is while pursuing such relatively tiny amounts of money means that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office must somehow pursue, process and ultimately win an enormous volume of cases — which it does.

Andre Rogers says Philly Police confiscated $281 from him in 2007. When the District Attorney sued to keep the money this year — listed as only $81, not $281 — it was up to Rogers to present five-year-old pay stubs demonstrating that it was legitimate income.


Andre Rogers arrived at Courtroom 478 in Philadelphia’s City Hall in August with the look of a man cautiously exploring a foreign country.

Rogers, 50, a construction laborer from Grays Ferry, had recently received a letter in the mail notifying him that the District Attorney’s Office was moving to seize money confiscated from him during an arrest for drug possession with intent to deliver.

The letter baffled him: His arrest had occurred way back in 2007 (at the time, he insists, police took $281 off him, not the $81 listed by the DA and recorded on a police property receipt that Rogers says he’d never seen before and that does not bear his signature). What’s more, the case against Rogers had been withdrawn at trial. Rogers says he was entirely innocent; the law would seem to agree. Only now, five years later, the money had resurfaced. 

Why had the DA suddenly decided, after five years, to pursue Rogers’ $81? The simple answer is that these cases originate in a factory-like process that produces an incredible volume of cases at an incredible rate — but with little initial review.    

Forfeiture cases involving cash are generated directly from the property receipts filed by police, which are reviewed for certain loose criteria: generally, the involvement of drugs, gambling or prostitution. The information on the receipts is then copied into a series of form letters that serve as the basis for legal service, for the petition for forfeiture and as an affirmation that “the facts of the case set forth in the foregoing petition are true.”

It’s a system that allows a tremendous number of cases — and ultimately, a vast amount of revenue — to be generated by a relatively small number of people at a rapid pace. (Just two assistant district attorneys typically work on civil asset forfeiture cases, according to Beth Grossman, chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Public Nuisance Task Force, which includes the forfeiture unit.)

And once a petition is filed, the DA’s advantage over the erstwhile property owner (here, called the “respondent”) is extraordinary, and often overpowering.

Whether these cases have merit or not is a question rarely determined by a judge or jury. Instead, the DA can rely on one primary, brilliantly simple means of winning its cases: default. Default judgments, in fact, account for the bulk of the DA’s successful forfeiture. Roughly 80 percent of the thousands of cases filed annually will begin and end on a single day, the case’s first listing in court, usually when the property’s owner fails to appear. 

The abundance of no-shows surely speaks, in many instances, to the strength of the DA’s case. But there are other reasons that many people may fail to fight for their property.

For one thing, whether those being relieved of their property by default are even aware of the proceedings is an open question. Grossman says that all respondents are given proper service via certified mail, and if the letter comes back unsigned, they are served personally by process servers. But certificates of legal service — usually included in standard civil dockets — are not included in physical court files of these cases. 

City Paper reviewed records of service for 22 cases provided by the DA’s Office. Of these, only 11 showed service. In one case, a note attached says, “The matter should have been continued for service and the petition resent to his home address” — but apparently it wasn’t. In some cases, servers found the addresses to be vacant or found the respondents had moved long ago. In some of these cases, an attached note from the DA claimed that these respondents had given “false addresses.” But these addresses are copied from police property receipts — and the possibility that police error was to blame is not addressed. In the cases in which service was not made, forfeitures proceeded anyway. 

The DA claims, in an explanation attached to this file, that its attempts at service demonstrate “compliance with service provisions set forth in the forfeiture statute.” 

Another reason for the DA’s advantage is the simple fact that requiring respondents to appear in court multiple times to prove ownership of relatively small amounts of money simply isn’t worth their time. Likewise, hiring a lawyer is often a losing financial proposition from the start. Most individuals who do pursue the return of their property do so pro se — that is to say, alone.

Given the high rate of defaults, the majority of forfeiture cases are filed and concluded long before any related criminal proceedings have been resolved. Some of these alleged criminals — the same whose property is being seized in a default judgement — will eventually be found not guilty, or have charges against them withdrawn, dismissed or nolle prossed, that is, voluntarily not prosecuted.

In an interview, Grossman pointed out — correctly — that state statute allows her to proceed with forfeiture without regard to any criminal conviction (or charge). But whether doing so is fair is a different question — one CP put to Grossman and DA spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson. 

“You’re hinging on these people who say their money was taken away from them, and they were found not guilty of X, Y and Z,” Jamerson said. “But the important part of that statement is the X, Y and Z.” 

Asked whether she was implying that guilt should be assumed based on charges, Jamerson responded, “Every [person] isn’t pulled over and arrested. … They’re not being pulled over because they’re a soccer mom.”

Jamerson is right about that. The majority of those affected aren’t white, suburban, middle-class women; they’re generally black or Hispanic, working-class and poor.

But whether or not they’ve committed a crime — and whether the property seized from them was a proceed of any crime — is another question.

While Grossman points out that her assistant district attorneys will generally re-list a forfeiture case (that is, let the respondent return at a later court date) if the respondent’s criminal case is still active, the DA still files these civil cases long in advance of criminal outcomes, re-listing them without regard to the criminal case’s timeline and doing so only for those respondents who appear at each and every court date in the meantime.

As a result, the vast majority of forfeiture cases are completed long before the associated criminal cases have been resolved. Of 300 completed forfeiture cases filed in 2011 and 2012 and randomly selected by City Paper for review, CP was able to tie 180 to closed criminal cases. Of those, 81 percent resulted in findings of guilt; the rest were found not guilty,  or had charges withdrawn or nolle prossed. 

Those numbers, if borne out over the thousands of cases the DA pursues every year, suggest that the Philadelphia District Attorney is successfully pursuing forfeiture cases worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, against as many as a thousand or more citizens who aren’t convicted of a crime.

What’s more, this analysis confirms what CP had learned anecdotally in interviews: A much smaller — but persistent — number of forfeiture cases accompany no criminal charge at all.

These findings raise questions about whether Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture practices are being used fairly, says Vanita Gupta, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who helped secure a settlement in a class-action lawsuit over forfeitures in Tenaha, Texas, where police officers were routinely stopping (mostly minority) motorists and seizing currency from them without filing any charges.

“The whole purpose of civil asset forfeiture is to make sure people are not permitted to profit from criminal activity,” says Gupta, who says the small amounts in play in many currency seizures in Philadelphia presents its own problem: “It’s one thing when you have hundreds of thousands of dollars being seized from the trunks of cars. But when police are taking such small amounts from so many people who are never charged with a crime, it raises grave questions about whether these commonplace amounts were really obtained through criminal activity.”

Click the image for an interactive chart comparing the timelines and outcomes of civil asset and related criminal cases.


Despite long odds and often-meager amounts at stake, some respondents do fight to reclaim their property. Those who do make their case must show up, 9 o’clock sharp, at City Hall Courtroom 478, where anywhere from 40 to 80 cases — all forfeiture actions — are listed on most days.

Each has his or her own story, but this reporter observed patterns over weeks of visits to the courtroom. Of the dozen or two dozen people who show up on a given day, a few will likely be young men (usually black or Hispanic), often there to reclaim money seized from them on the street by police — usually, but not always, in connection with drug charges. Others are security guards, there to reclaim their (legal, they say) firearms, seized in a stop or arrest. It’s a surprisingly common scenario, says Narberth attorney Jonathan Goldstein, who represents people in many such cases. Others are individuals (or entire families) there to fight the threatened forfeiture of a home.

Many arrive clutching a form letter from the District Attorney’s Office that offers three salient pieces of what might be called advice. First: “Your property will not be returned at the first listing.” Second: “The forfeiture proceeding is a separate and distinct court action from any related criminal case. The outcome of one does not depend on the of the other.” And last: “You must appear for court at every listing for the forfeiture matter. Failure to do so may result in the forfeiture of your property.”

Dozens of individuals with whom this reporter spoke outside of Courtroom 478 — the legal rabbit hole through which most forfeiture actions pass — were quickly learning that this was an understatement. 

In the world of civil forfeiture, the usual protections don’t apply. Indeed, respondents who arrive at Courtroom 478 for the first time not only won’t get their property back, but won’t see a judge and won’t have a chance to make their case to anyone other than one of the three or four assistant district attorneys who staff the room and, to a degree that might surprise anyone who’s spent time in a standard criminal or civil courtroom, appear to run it themselves.

As respondents wait, it is the assistant district attorneys — not court staff — who call their names and address their cases. When the room is asked to stand for the arrival of the “judge” (in fact, an administrative judge with whom respondents will have no interaction at all), the action is purely symbolic: Business is already well underway. Aside from occasional private attorneys hired by individual respondents, there is no one else in the room representing their interest. 

The setup gives the DA’s Office a great deal of power, including the ability to win a case in a single listing and to re-list a case indefinitely. Those who show up to fight for the return of their property, on the other hand, face only one near-certainty: More court dates.

Those fighting a forfeiture action may be required to appear as many as a dozen times in court, over the course of months or even years, before a case reaches its conclusion. An analysis of more than 8,000 asset forfeiture cases filed in 2010 showed that the 17 percent of cases (or roughly 1,400) in which respondents appeared at least once took more than eight times as long, an average of 260 days, as first-listing judgments. Further, respondents who did fight their cases were required to come to court an average of five times before their cases were completed. More than 100 respondents were required to come to court 10 times or more — risking a default judgment against them if they failed to appear just once. By September 2012, roughly 9 percent of the cases were still listed as “active” — an average 695 days after they were filed.

To win a case often means proving that the money in question was not ill gotten — not always a simple proposition, as Andre Rogers found. After waiting about two hours to speak with an assistant district attorney at his case’s first listing, Rogers left the courtroom, shaking his head slowly.

“They said I have to come back, at the next date, or else I forfeit my money,” he reported. “They want me to bring in a pay stub and show I was working at the time.” The time in question, as previously noted, was some five years earlier. Rogers wasn’t sure whether he’d return. “I don’t know if I have to work or not that day — if so, it’s a win/lose situation. I may make $300 in a day, but if I come down here I’m losing $300 — and, honestly, I may lose.”

For all the time and effort it takes to fight their cases, most of these respondents still lose: Of the cases filed in 2010 that didn’t end on the first day by default, 68 percent ended in an order granting the DA’s motion for forfeiture. Of the more than 8,000 cases, only 48 — 0.6 percent — ended in a judge’s denying the DA’s forfeiture motion.

More often, a respondent and the DA may reach a “settlement agreement” (the terms of which are not contained in physical court records). This reporter has seen some settlements in which all of a respondent’s money is returned, but often the DA agrees to return only a portion of the property. About 20 percent of the cases in which respondents showed up at least once in 2010 ended in such agreements. 

It was to such a settlement that Dwayne Marks agreed, after hiring an attorney to get back the $6,000 seized from him without so much as a criminal charge.

“My lawyer said, ‘Listen: I can get your money back, probably, but it’s going to take a year, a year and a half, two years maybe, to keep going to court.’” Meanwhile, his lawyer explained, “The DA says, ‘We’re going to offer you a deal: You take half your money and keep going.’”

“And by the time I pay the lawyer, it was like, I was going to get back $3,000 anyway,” Marks says. “So I just signed off, took the $3,000, and left it alone.”

In a tiny fraction of these cases, respondents who fight long and hard enough may finally make it in front of a judge. Since January, that judge would be in most cases Common Pleas Court Judge Paula A. Patrick. But having one’s day in court is no guarantee of success, either: The burden of “preponderance of evidence,” unlike that of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, means that the DA doesn’t have to present an airtight case — just one that strikes a judge (or, in rare cases, a jury) as even slightly more believable than that of the respondent.


The DA’s forfeiture apparatus generates a fantastic amount of money. In addition to the more than $6 million the program brings in annually, the DA last reported to the state’s Attorney General a fund balance of over $10 million in 2011. This money is split between the DA’s Office and the Philly Police, paying for all manner of day-to-day costs, including police overtime. 

Beyond these generalities, exactly how the proceeds are spent is unclear (see related story). But the money raises issues beyond transparency: While officials from the District Attorney’s Office have long vigorously repudiated the idea that this unit’s purpose is to generate revenue, a multimillion-dollar revenue stream is a powerful incentive to have to ignore.  

In 2009, after Mayor Michael Nutter proposed cuts to the DA’s budget and suggested that the office tap its forfeiture funds to help make up the difference, then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham blasted that idea in a speech before Council.

Quoting from Pennsylvania’s forfeiture law, which states that government bodies “shall not anticipate future forfeitures or proceeds therefrom” in adopting budgets, Abraham told Council, “Forfeiture actions must be driven only by legal circumstances, not by economic concerns. … Prohibiting budgetary bodies from considering either federal or state forfeiture to pay salaries or run an office … wisely recognizes that to allow or require law enforcement to depend on forfeiture as its lifeblood is fraught with an inherent and irreconcilable conflict of interest, in which law-enforcement agencies would be turned into overzealous asset bounty hunters, potentially trampling on the rights of innocent citizens in order to balance the budget.”

It was a sentiment that opponents of the asset-forfeiture process would agree with — but, many of them would argue, that’s exactly what’s happening in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office already. 

“Pennsylvania law has already turned law-enforcement officials into bounty hunters — and placed the pursuit of property over a commitment to the fair and impartial administration of justice,” says Institute for Justice attorney Scott Bullock, who helped author the “Policing for Profit” report. 

 “If you want to [prevent] law-enforcement officials from anticipating forfeiture revenue, you have to change the law that allows them to profit from other people’s property in the first place.”

The DA’s top officials themselves respond to larger criticisms of forfeiture policy by pointing out that they pursue forfeiture because statute allows them to — and that it is state law, not the Philadelphia DA, that sets terms by which they can proceed. As First Assistant District Attorney Ed McCann put it in an email to CP, the DA’s duty “is to carry out the law as enacted by the General Assembly. … To the extent your questions concern these underlying policy decisions, they are better directed to the legislature.”

It’s a fair point, says Louis S. Rulli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who heads Penn’s pro bono law clinic, which assists people facing forfeiture of their homes. “It’s a bad law,” says Rulli. “In my experience, the people in this unit are good people — they’re doing the best they can.”

But even within the current law, there are alternatives — like Allegheny County’s model of pursuing forfeiture mostly as a criminal, not civil, matter. 

“I personally think that it’s criminal forfeiture that’s appropriate, where you have to have a criminal proceeding, the DA has to prevail and only after they have won the criminal case can they seek to have the property forfeited,” says Rulli. “Federal law provides for both — and the district attorneys have their choice. … But most go after civil forfeiture because there are a lot of advantages.”

And, Rulli points out, District Attorney Seth Williams — who has undertaken other reforms  — has the power to shape Philly’s forfeiture apparatus, which has gone largely unchanged under several district attorneys, according to his own priorities. Williams, Rulli says, “should set different priorities.”

And even beyond the issues of fairness and due process for respondents are the implications of what such close ties between law enforcement and revenue might mean on the streets of Philadelphia when police are authorized to regularly seize small amounts of cash, even when an arrest isn’t made. While many of the dozens of people CP spoke to about pursuing the return of their cash said that the amounts written on police property receipts were accurate, others (like Rogers) said they were not: that the amount of cash they’d had on them had shrunk when it appeared again on paper.

Several people with whom this reporter spoke — mostly young black men — said that police routinely stopped them without cause, and that having cash seized was, in their communities, a fact of life. Ali  Hymen, a young man who’d had cash seized from him (without an accompanying charge), said the same officers who made the seizure had stopped him before. “They always mess with me, always bother me,” he says. “They said, ‘Where’d you get all that money?’ I said, ‘All what money? I work.’” 

Mitchell Lawton, 33, whom CP met outside Courtroom 478 trying to reclaim $776 seized from him when he was arrested for drug charges — charges that had long ago been dismissed — says that he’d had about $2,500 on him, from cashing a paycheck, when he was stopped.

“Find a black guy, let him walk around the neighborhood with some money,” Lawton suggested. “He’ll be stopped.”

Michael Diamonstein, an attorney in Philadelphia who has often represented property owners in forfeiture cases, says that while he credits the DA with doing a good job within the context of these laws — especially when it comes to the forfeiture of real estate — the problem Lawton speaks of is real. 

“There is a segment of the population that is treated differently” by police officers, says Diamonstein. 

One police directive that would seem to be aimed at disincentivizing bad behavior by police officers — a directive, obtained by City Paper, that sets under “guidelines for seizure under drug forfeiture laws” a minimum figure of $1,000 — appears to be routinely ignored. Asked about that directive, Philly Police spokesman Lt. John Stanford said it didn’t apply to (alleged) drug cases (though amounts smaller than $1,000 have been subjected to forfeiture in many cases not involving drugs reviewed by this reporter).

If $1,000 were set as a minimum amount for seizure, the vast bulk of forfeiture cases in Philadelphia — and the vast bulk of the revenue generated from them — would disappear.

Certainly, Andre Rogers — the man stopped with either $280 or $81, depending on whose account you believe — would have welcomed that protocol. This reporter last saw Rogers in October, when he appeared for his second court listing after all, armed with a five-year-old W-2 form and, rather amazingly, a pay stub from the very week before his money was confiscated. He emerged two hours later smiling: The DA had granted him the return of his money. He’d have to go to another courtroom, then to another room in City Hall and then to the police headquarters four blocks away to get it — a process that would bring his total investment in his $81 to around 10 hours. 

“They know most people aren’t going to do all that,” he said later over the phone. “I got locked up, had my money taken from me, and I didn’t do anything. I wanted to prove to the city that I wasn’t wrong. I was like, ‘No: I’m right.’”

( (@isaiahthompson)

Dustin Slaughter and Anna Merriman assisted with research for this story.

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