A York property — seized in a drug raid in 2008 — will be auctioned on Friday, according to a news release from the York County Drug Task Force.
Marvin Washington Fulton, 54, was arrested on Aug. 9, 2008, following the execution of a search warrant at his home at 36 E. Princess St., according to York City Police detective First Class Andrew Shaffer.
Fulton was charged with possession with intent to deliver cocaine and delivery of cocaine, Shaffer said. Between controlled buys from Fulton and the cocaine police seized in his home, police found a total of more than two pounds of the drug, Shaffer said.
Fulton pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to 7 to 20 years in prison, according to court documents. Fulton is now at the Camp Hill State Correctional Institution, according to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections information.
Fulton’s home was seized and was turned over to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, Shaffer said. The detective added that the seizure sends a message to drug traffickers, that in addition to taking dealers’ vehicles and other items inside their homes, “If you’re going to be in the drug trade, we’ll seize your house also.”
The attorney general’s office attempted to sell the home to Fulton’s family at fair market value, but the family was not able to come up the money, Shaffer said.
The house will be sold at noon at its location — 36 E. Princess St. — by auction at the property location. The auction will be conducted by Ziegler Auction Company Ltd., Hummelstown. The sale proceeds will be used by the York County Drug Task Force for future drug enforcement purposes, according to the news release.
During his campaign last year, Kearney had vowed the workings of the York County DA’s office — including the drug task force fund — would be more open to the public.
He said he doesn’t particularly like the cloak of secrecy around the forfeiture fund. He said it is “a fair political question” to ask him how the money is being spent. But he said he has to adhere to the law, and unless it is changed, the public will have to trust him.
Kearney and Shaffer assure the community the current $1 million-plus fund from cash, cars and other property seized in drug busts and forfeited by law to the county to fight drug crime is being well spent.
The asset forfeiture law requires the fund to be audited yearly, and Kearney is arranging the first audit under his watch.
Ultimate oversight is by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, which annually reviews all county task forces audits, forfeitures and spending. That office releases annual reports for each county.
The reports do not reveal specific spending but categorize expenses under general headings like confidential case expenditures.
Kearney predicted the audit will not find any glaring problems. And Shaffer, who heads daily task force operations, is confident the audit will account for “every dime” he is responsible for.
Pennsylvania has terrible civil forfeiture laws. The government can civilly forfeit property by a preponderance of the evidence showing that the property is related to a crime and subject to forfeiture, a standard significantly lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard required for a criminal conviction. And property owners, not the government, bear the burden of proof in innocent owner claims, making property owners effectively guilty until proven innocent. Worse still, all of the money seized by law enforcement agencies and forfeited ultimately makes its way back into their hands. The money is first distributed to the district attorney and state Attorney General, and, under the law, they must use it for enforcement of drug laws. Pennsylvania law enforcement officials take advantage of the commonwealth’s broad forfeiture laws. In just a three-year period (2000-2002), more than $20.2 million in currency, vehicles, real estate and other property was forfeited.
A 1992 case illustrates the lengths to which Pennsylvania law enforcement is willing to go to seize and forfeit citizens’ property. Mattia and Marjorie Lonardo owned Shorty’s Café in a “drug infested area” of Allentown, Pa.Aware that their café was being used for drug sales, they took significant steps to fight back. According to the appellate court:
Mr. Lonardo made it known to his patrons that he would notify the police if he saw or suspected the possession of drugs[.] On his own initiative, Mr. Lonardo reported illegal activities to the police at least seven times, and police offers admitted at hearing that at least two raids were initiated by Mr. Londardo’s reports. At times Mr. Lonardo called the police anonymously in fear of his life, instructed his employees to call the police whenever they saw patrons with drugs and ordered patrons to leave the bar when they were observed with drugs. Also, he identified a suspect and cooperated with police searches at the raids, discussed drugs and loitering problems with the police captain and followed his instruction by posting signs on all the windows. Mr. Lonardo received threats against himself and family and was injured when glass was thrown at him because he refused to acquiesce in drug activities at the cage. He also sustained damages to the property due to this policy toward patrons dealing or possessing drugs.
The police seized Mr. Lonardo’s café, and a trial court ordered it forfeited. The Lonardos were not themselves charged with any violation of the Pennsylvania Controlled Substances Act. Nonetheless, the trial court concluded—after the testimony of 24 police officers—that the property was used in drug-related activity and the Lonardos did not “reasonably disclaim . . . [“lack of knowledge of the drug related activity”].” On appeal, the state defended the holding—arguing that property could be seized if the owner had knowledge of drug activity, even if the owner did not consent to it. Fortunately, the appellate court overturned the trial court, concluding that the Lonardos “did all that could reasonably be expected of them to prevent the illegal use of their property[.]”
Clearly, it’s time for Pennsylvania to take up the take of re-evaluating and abolishing its civil forfeiture regime entirely. Until then, families will risk being made homeless under a law that allows greedy drug task forces to profit from a system that has effectively allowed law enforcement to dispense with the right to a fair trial in which one is innocent until proven guilty.