Forfeiture in Lancaster County: Detailed Annual Reports Released; Nothing Forfeited Until After Convictions

Forfeiture funds are monies taken from drug dealers via due process which law enforcement use to fight crime and save lives. Forfeiture funds are not taxpayer monies and are necessary to sustain the Lancaster County Drug Task Force (DTF), a team of investigators that goes after predator drug dealers who are taking innocent lives at unprecedented rates.

Forfeiture law prohibits us from releasing all records relating to seizures and expenditures. Yet, we have been transparent to the extent the law allows. On Thursday, after consultation with the state Attorney General’s Office on what is public domain, the Lancaster County DA’s Office provided a media outlet, LNP, and the public, with 18 years of detailed financial records regarding drug forfeitures in the county.

(Those records are attached on this page.)

Also Thursday, the DA’s Office met with a county judge to explain all efforts taken to promote transparency about assets seized from drug dealers while still respecting the law and not jeopardizing cases or safety.

The DA’s Office and LNP are in court over what should be made public from the forfeiture records. The DA’s Office, consistent with other Pa. county prosecutors, have noted that blanket release of all such records would break existing forfeiture law, established to protect law-enforcement, other individuals, and the integrity of investigations.

The DA’s Office, in a six-page memorandum, points out that the extensive documents include annual income, expenses, balances, as well as what specific items were forfeited and how the money was spent. 

The summaries are prepared by the Auditor from the Lancaster County Controller, who has access to all forfeiture records, and it is then submitted to the Pennsylvania Attorney General.

After recent discussions and directives from the AG’s Office, the DA’s Office determined those summaries, with very limited redactions (explained in the attached memo), are public domain and thus being released in their near entirety, including nine years of records which were not even requested.

We are “merely following the guidelines set forth by the Office of the chief law enforcement officer of the state,’ the DA’s Office memo states.

The summary documents contain more information than what is being sought in the Right-to-Know filings. The documents do not contain sensitive information that could be used to identify confidential informants and undercover police vehicles.

The Lancaster County Board of Commissioners (BOC) have joined LNP in the matter, arguing they need the forfeiture records for budgeting purposes.

However, it was made clear today that the BOC had already received the 18 years of detailed annual summaries of forfeiture seizures and expenditures from the Controller every year - the exact same information which was provided Thursday to LNP’s counsel.

The memo also states that the BOC’s reason for wanting the records (they already have) actually goes against existing law, because forfeiture funds cannot be considered for budgeting purposes under the law.

The DA’s Office has taken a number of unique steps to promote transparency of forfeiture records – while still complying with the law.

For example, the DA’s Office, over a month ago, offered the BOC and all regional media outlets to view, without redaction or restriction, the entirety of what funds and assets forfeited by drug dealers in criminal prosecutions are used for in Lancaster County – with an agreement to not publish anything prohibited by law or which would compromise safety or an investigation. The offer provided full review of all receipts attached to such purchases, since 2008 – six boxes worth of paperwork.

Two media groups have viewed the records and found nothing improper. LNP declined the offer and the BOC has not responded.

The attached memo also outlines existing forfeiture procedures in Lancaster County which have not been included in LNP’s reporting on what they present as a lack of transparency.

An example: As recently as this month, LNP printed a story critical of offices which forfeit property prior to conviction, while citing the Lancaster County DA. However, the story ignores the fact that DA Stedman instituted a policy years ago to not seize drug dealer assets until after convictions- consistent with the very policy many advocates for forfeiture reform request

Also in the DA’s Office memo:

- That the usage of forfeiture funds – audited every year by the Lancaster County Controller and Pennsylvania Attorney General - have always been found to be in compliance with the law and have never even been questioned before by the BOC.

-The funds are used, in part, to pay salaries of Drug Task Force detectives. Without forfeiture funds to sustain the DTF there are two alternatives: use taxpayer money or close the DTF at a time when more people are dying from illegal drugs than ever.

“This office prefers to use drug dealer money to protect the public, save lives and save taxpayer money,” District Attorney Craig Stedman said Thursday.

- The DA’s Office has been found in full compliance every year by those auditing agencies.

- It is well established in Lancaster, as well as common in the state, that forfeiture-related purchases, to include all vehicles, do not go through the county purchasing department – and have not since the inception of the DTF decades ago. Claims to the contrary or suggestions of related impropriety are demonstrably false. A three-page public memo (also attached) written by the County Controller explains this process, and that it has never been previously questioned by the BOC.

- The Lancaster County DA’s Office is not taking a unique response to the RTK requests – many Pennsylvania DA offices have responded the same way, a stance supported by the PDAA.

- The DA’s Office has previously offered to resolve the RTK matters with an independent mediator; LNP refused that offer.

It should be noted that the summary documents provided were prepared by the Controller after their reviewing all relevant records.

Further, the DA and Controller have pledged to collaborate in the future in all matters concerning forfeiture funds to include the auditing process.