Northumberland County District Attorney
I read with interest the article in your Sunday edition containing Mr. Clausi’s latest attack on me. No one should be surprised at this. He recently promised he would “remember” my granting a union grievance. He has kept his prior promises to “get me” by cutting my staff for not agreeing with his attempt to terminate the top staff at the prison. This is typical Clausi, attacking a person’s character who doesn’t agree with him without bothering to check the facts. He knows just the accusation will get him the headline he wants.
What are the facts?
Police Departments occasionally seize money from criminals when they are arrested. This happens more frequently in drug cases due to the nature of those crimes. The money seized is held by the police as evidence during the prosecution of the case. Once the case is resolved, the Commonwealth can ask to forfeit cash or other property, to be used for law enforcement purposes, if it can be proven that it is related to criminal activity.
The forfeiture procedure involves the police providing information to the DA regarding the circumstances under which the property was seized. We have given forms to the police departments to report the information on the property they seize. My office has also sponsored a training session, put on by the Attorney General’s Office, on issues in forfeiture cases to help the police understand what can be seized and the proper procedures to follow.
When my office receives the completed forms, and as time permits, we then prepare the petition, and have an attorney review it and file it with the court. If the case is contested, and most large seizures are, it must be assigned to an attorney to handle along with their regular caseload.
In the last year my, office filed 30 forfeiture petitions totaling over $26,000 and six vehicles. We also asked the Attorney General to handle a large complicated forfeiture case which involves over $37,000, a vehicle and other property. That case has been in litigation for over a year. We have 29 cases pending that need to be reviewed for forfeiture proceedings involving over $12,000, five cars and some other property.
The fact that police departments have money in excess of the amount we have listed may be due to the fact that the criminal cases are still pending and we have not yet received the completed paperwork from them or there isn’t sufficient evidence to file a forfeiture petition. Our police do an excellent job and we should all be proud of them. Public safety is their primary duty, everything else is secondary. The fact that they are holding an increased amount of funds may well be indicative of an increase in drug arrests in our communities.
One of our biggest problems in forfeiture cases is serving a copy of the petition on the owner of the property, since personal service is required. Forfeitures are civil actions and are governed by the Rules of Civil Procedure. Under the Rules of Civil Procedure, owners of the property can file an answer denying the property is related to criminal activity, depose witnesses and serve written interrogatories or questions, as can my office. The case must then be scheduled for a trial, usually by a judge. If the case is contested, as any large forfeiture case is, this process can take a year or more to complete.
While we have had some large amounts seized, which we have tried to deal with quickly, most of the seizures we get are in the area of $500 or less. Each seizure requires a separate case and must be researched, filed, and reviewed and prosecuted by an attorney. He or she must review reports and interview witnesses to determine if there is sufficient evidence to forfeit the property. Not every case where money is seized results in its forfeiture. In fact, we did have an attorney from the AG’s Office review Sunbury’s cases and he told us that many do not have sufficient evidence to file a forfeiture petition.
In an adequately-staffed office, an assistant DA would do the work I mentioned above and prepare the case for forfeiture proceedings. However, even prior to the cut of an ADA from my staff, we did not have the attorney time to do this for every case. Each Assistant DA handles over 300 criminal cases, along with juvenile, summary appeals, and other criminal petitions, motions and appeals. My staff has a high caseload and their prime focus is to prosecute criminals and keep the public safe. We also have only three secretaries to prepare documents for five attorneys as well as handle over 2,500 cases, including all of the related paper and office work that all the proceedings generate.
I am very proud of my staff, they do a great job under sometimes difficult circumstances. There are days when they stay late and come in early, as well as work weekends just to keep up with the caseload. They don’t have the extra time to take on another 200 or so cases of forfeiture petitions.
All that being said, I am aware of the economic climate within the county and throughout our country. Any mention of a story that makes it seem like money is just sitting around, unused, will, of course, cause public concern. However, as I have explained the process for forfeiture is not as simple as some may believe. It takes tedious work and ample amounts of secretary and attorney time to get the money into law enforcement coffers.
It certainly is not my intention to be involved in political accusations over criminal justice issues. I am always open to discussions that can lead to better service to the public, but political hay-making does not solve any of the challenges we all face as public officials.
With that in mind, I have a proposal to help resolve the issue and speed up the process. If the Commissioner’s allow me to hire an attorney on a contract basis, we could have a private attorney review and file these cases and handle those that require a trial. As I noted, forfeitures are civil actions and the DA’s staff is trained for criminal procedure, not civil. That is why the Attorney General has a separate division to handle forfeitures. They are very much different from criminal prosecutions. Having a private attorney on contract to handle these cases and assist the police in reviewing their cases would certainly speed up the process.
I am sending a copy of this proposal to Commissioners Clausi, Bridy and Shoch and will await their response.
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