Investigation Finds Philly PD Officers Bought Forfeited Houses Seized During Drug Arrests

Philadelphia's asset forfeiture programs have subjected the city's residents to all sorts of abuse. Cops have taken cars away from their owners because a child, relative, or friend was arrested while driving the vehicle. Law enforcement has tried to take entire homes away from grandmothers because their kid sold $140-worth of marijuana to an undercover cop.

A recent court settlement is reforming the program -- something the city's legislators have had zero success doing. Cash under the amount of $250 can no longer be forfeited. Seizures under $1000 need to be accompanied by an arrest and charges. The city's law enforcement has been flexing its creativity, using the new arrest requirement to seize vehicles as "evidence" and hoping the wheels of justice grind slowly enough it would be cheaper to relinquish ownership than pay to get the car out of the impound lot.

We know cops directly profit from asset forfeiture, but when we say that we generally mean their agencies get new toys, vehicles, and other niceties by converting other people's property into discretionary spending. But there's an actual personal profit angle to forfeiture that hasn't been discussed. An investigation by PlanPhilly shows police officers have personally and directly benefited from property seizures tied to drug enforcement efforts. (h/t Wendy Cockcroft)

Maleny Vazquez remembers when the police came and took the house across the street. Vazquez has only lived on this block of Waterloo Street for a few years, but in this chaotic section of Kensington, riven by the drug trade, she has gotten used to seeing police empty homes.

“There were lot of guns and a lot of drugs in there,” she recalls. “They took 30 guns out of there.”

In neighborhoods across Philadelphia, the city sells homes that owe back taxes, or have fallen into foreclosure. But the sales in Vazquez’s neighborhood were different. Here, police seized properties after drug raids. Once they were taken, the district attorney auctioned them off to the highest bidder, for cash that went back to the law enforcement agencies.

This program saw Philly law enforcement rake in as much as $6 million a year for most of the past quarter-century. But it's not just the indirect benefit incentivizing property seizures. With this incentive, drug raids could just be home shopping.

[R]ecords showed that members of Philadelphia law enforcement directly benefited from these sales. This investigation detected at least 11 properties that were sold to Philadelphia police officers trying their hands at real estate investment.

The number may not seem like much over the course of twenty-five years, but PlanPhilly says there's no way of knowing exactly how much property ended up in the possession of law enforcement officers. It was only able to examine 1,682 records held by the District Attorney's office, which handled the sale of forfeited homes. The Philly PD conveniently decided not to retain records on forfeited property, ensuring it had nothing to give to PlanPhilly when it started asking questions.

The Philly PD does not actually prohibit officers from buying seized property. It notes it "gives the appearance of impropriety," but apparently feels it isn't actual impropriety worth deterring. Nothing prevents officers from buying up houses they've seized except their better judgment. For at least 11 officers, an appearance of impropriety isn't enough to deter them from looking like they're headed out home shopping every time they don their SWAT gear.

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