KEYSTONE CROSSROADS — Berks County narcotics detectives were ready to pounce.
From a distance, they spied Jose Veloz and Ambioris Cruz sitting in a 2005 Nissan Murano on a leafy residential block on Spring Street in Reading, Pa. The SUV was stashed with bags of heroin and about $5,000 in cash.
Veloz and Cruz thought they were about to pull off a lucrative drug deal, but police were one step ahead: Cops had flipped one of the pair’s associates against them. It was a setup.
In a flash, detectives rushed the pair and made arrests — seizing the cash, the drugs and the SUV.
It was a nice haul for the Berks County District Attorney’s Office. An open-and-shut drug case, the property could be confiscated using a legal procedure known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows authorities to take money, cars and other assets of those suspected of selling drugs — even before a person is charged or found guilty. Proceeds are liquidated and used at the whim of law enforcement outside of county budget oversight.
Criminal justice advocates have long criticized the practice.
But to officials in Berks County, which a Keystone Crossroads’ investigation found to be a statewide leader in civil forfeiture, it’s a common-sense solution.
In this case, the $5,000 and the Nissan Murano were just another easy prize: a way to keep taxpayers off the hook while using property of suspected drug dealers to fund more drug investigations.
But there was a problem.
The car was registered to Ambioris Cruz’s now-estranged spouse, Daisilee Cruz. An honor student enrolled at the University of Saint Joseph’s in Hartford, Conn., she was 240 miles away at the time of the bust.
She had nothing to do with her ex’s drug operation. She was never charged with a crime. And she wanted her SUV back.
This was 2016.
Veloz and Ambioris Cruz pleaded guilty and took multi-year prison sentences over the heroin bust. But Daisilee Cruz, who had no right to legal counsel in a civil forfeiture case, was effectively helpless. She notified the DA about her situation, but, by early 2019, she wasn’t any closer to retrieving her vehicle.
Contacted recently, she said she moved on.
“I’ve given up on trying to get it back,” Cruz said.
Stories like these used to be far more common in big cities like Philadelphia, where law enforcement once routinely took homes, cars and millions in cash from drug suspects without charges. That was before lawsuits showed that police had sometimes used this powerful tool to take property from innocent people.
Since then, there has been a radical shift that’s occurred with little notice.
Records show Philadelphia collected less money from police confiscation in 2017 than any recent year on record. But, meanwhile, its suburbs and outlying counties, like Berks, have ramped up cash seizures according to an analysis of five years of data from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office.
In 2013, Philadelphia accounted for 40% of all cash seized by local law enforcement in the state. That share has since shrunk to just 10%. In the most recent year on record, half of the $11.1 million seized in Pa. came from eight suburban and exurban counties in the Southeast.
Collectively, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, Lancaster, York, Berks, Lebanon and Lehigh counties have nearly doubled their share of forfeited cash since 2012. Statewide, DAs have raked in more than $64 million in cash using the procedure in that time.
For Berks County DA John T. Adams, this increase is no accident. It is a deliberate strategy, a point of pride.
“We’re looking for assets more so than we ever did before,” Adams said. “This is bad guys’ money that we’re taking to enable us to arrest more bad guys. You’re damn right we’re gonna take it.”
The fact that civil forfeiture has increased in suburban and rural parts of Pennsylvania comes as little surprise to the nation’s leading scholars on the subject.
“Counties pressed for funds are going to increase civil forfeiture,” said University of Pennsylvania Professor Louis Rulli. “DAs know that this is a very profitable funding stream.”
In Philadelphia, Rulli says a lesson was learned over the decades: When forfeiture is used as a cash cow, everything can look like drug money. Everything can look like a prize.
And as other counties have scaled up the practice — as Daisilee Cruz’s case and others uncovered through our investigation show — seemingly innocent people are getting caught in the crossfire.
‘The city’s a mess’
Sandwiched between Coal Country, Amish Country and the sprawling Philly suburbs, Berks County is 866 square miles of rolling farms, foothills and small towns with the city of Reading at its heart.
Adams, 57, is a tough-talking DA who bragged of chasing down scofflaws on foot during his days as a county probation officer in the 1980s. Today, he wears a suit and tie, but still likes being close to the action. He says he sometimes accompanies investigators on door-kicking drug raids.
“As I get a little older, I’m not going out as much,” he joked.
With Adams at the helm, the county has stripped more dollars away from people believed to be connected to illegal drug activity per capita than any other DA office in the state, according to an examination of forfeiture reports filed annually to the state AG.
Although just 418,000 people reside in Berks, DA Adams has brought in $4.6 million from cash seizures over five years. The figure equates to 9% of his total office budget. That total is a shade more than Allegheny County, home to the city of Pittsburgh and more than a million residents. Per capita, law enforcement in Berks brought in the equivalent of $11 dollars for every person in the county, while Allegheny brought in just $3 dollars for every resident.
Adams says the bulk of the county’s forfeiture proceeds come from marquee drug busts in Reading — a largely Latino city that suffered in the wake of deindustrialization and has battled drug crime and poverty for decades. The DA says the city’s highly “transient” population and its position amidst a triangle of major highways make it fertile ground for narcotics trafficking.
“If we do not have a method to take away the fruits of the illicit labor of drug dealers, they’re going to continue to deal their poison and people are going to continue to die,” Adams said.
He pointed to the breakup of a violent, multi-million dollar heroin and K-2 ring last year as an example of this plight. The joint effort with state and federal forces called “Operation Shattered” included deploying explosives to break into the homes of major dealers.
This, Adams said, was the daily reality in a city that is among the nation’s poorest.
“Do you think that Reading is some fucking nice community? Because it’s not,” said Adams, who’s elected at the county level. “The city’s a mess.”
The funding Adams secures through forfeiture is also, in his view, crucial for a municipality rocked by financial distress. Reading’s police department is short staffed and raises are infrequent, he says. So, Adams breaks a share of seized cash off to fund investigations and buy equipment.
“Frankly, I would never have been able to obtain that equipment if I had to rely on a municipal budget or a county budget or a state budget,” Adams said, of forfeiture proceeds.
The office has also used forfeiture money to pay out bonuses to police and even the underpaid public defenders who represent people too poor to pay for their own defense.
Critics of civil asset forfeiture say that money found in a suspect’s pocket should not be used to pad budgets.
“As long as forfeiture money is being used to self-fund law enforcement agencies, there is always going to be an abuse of forfeiture practices,” said Darpana Sheth with the Washington-based Institute of Justice, which has been litigating civil asset forfeiture cases for years.
“Law enforcement has a direct financial incentive to not only seize property but pursue forfeiture even when there is a very tangential relationship to criminal activity,” she said.
Much of the money seized by the county in recent years has come from a district represented by Reading City Councilman Bryan Twyman. The area runs the gamut from leafy suburban streets to dilapidated blocks near the city’s downtown.
Standing near the shattered remains of a former outlet mall in his district, Twyman drew a parallel. Just as some of his constituents have turned to drug dealing in the wake of the city’s decline, local law enforcement has increased its use of asset forfeiture to deal with budget woes.
“We’re an old industrial city and we haven’t figured out what our economic future is going to look like. But something has to fill that void,” he said. “In the neighborhoods, that’s drug and drug dealers. In the world of government, it’s ‘Hey, how are you going to fix your budget?'”
As the use of forfeiture has spread outwardly from Philadelphia, DAs in counties neighboring Berks have come under fire for allegations of improper use. The York DA ran a cottage business of auctioning cars. The Lancaster DA used $21,000 of forfeiture funds to lease a flashy new SUV.
Despite the potential for abuse, for those living among the daily dread of crime, hardball law enforcement tactics such as civil asset forfeiture can be welcome.
Sunny Singh, 49, a father of two who manages a corner store in downtown Reading, feels he has an ally in Adams.
“If you have drug money, that’s not yours. You’re killing people,” Singh said. “They have smart people at the DA, and I think they’re doing the right thing.”
‘You’re not proving that’
Often in forfeiture cases, the line between earned money and drug money is blurrier than first meets the eye — even for seizures that come from “jackpot” raids.
On an early morning in May 2015, Dana Smith opened the door of her house in rural Berks County to see a long line of police cruisers.
The 48-year-old school counselor was shocked.
“It was like a line of state troopers’ cars and sheriff’s cars, and they said they have a warrant,” said Smith. “And I said, ‘A warrant for what?’ And they said, ‘To search the house.'”
Prosecutors suspected that Smith’s boyfriend, who used to live with her, had been running a drug trafficking operation out of her home, and now they came to look for more evidence.
Smith was fuming. Records show she has no criminal record and she says she has never been involved with drugs. Feeling unjustly targeted, she began screaming at the police, saying they had no right to enter her home.
She was placed in handcuffs and told to sit at her kitchen table. Investigators didn’t find any drugs in their sweep, but they did find something else — $3,000 that Smith says she had just cashed from a tax refund. It was days away from her son’s senior prom, and she had hoped to use the money to pay for his suit and rent a limousine.
But, to investigators, the stack of cash was probable drug money.
“They were like, ‘Well, I need to prove it’s not illegal gains,’ and I said, ‘Well, you’re not proving that it is illegal gains. You’re not proving that,'” Smith recalled saying to police, at the time. “I was really, really angry that they took my money.”
Smith’s boyfriend, Edward Chesney, was eventually charged and convicted as part of a drug sting launched by the Berks County DA known as “Operation Ice Out.” The pair split and his case was later dismissed after it came to light that police had conducted warrantless searches. Chesney was released after serving four years in jail.
Smith, though, was never charged with a crime, and she never forgot about her $3,000.
The formal process for turning seized assets into funding for law enforcement takes a long time — for both a district attorney’s office and the target of their petitions.
Because the forfeiture process is a civil proceeding, people do not have the right to an attorney, and 80 percent do not jump through the hoops needed to attempt to take back their property from the government.
Smith, though, was determined. She filed a motion to get her cash returned and was given a hearing. Prosecutors ultimately cut a deal, giving Smith back half of what was taken.
“I can’t say why they agreed to give me the $1,500 back because usually, they don’t want to give you anything back,” she said. “My lawyers said I could fight it even more, and then I could get nothing back.”
Civil asset forfeiture, Smith said, should be abolished.
“It’s like free money for them, like a blank check that they can write to themselves,” she said.
While a few large cash scores comprise most of the revenue the Berks County DA brings in, most of the forfeiture petitions filed by Adams are over comparatively small sums of money. And a review of several months of court filings from 2018 shows that small amounts of cash are routinely taken from people never charged with crimes.
In one such instance, county authorities took $300 while searching a woman’s apartment because the cash was found near a bag allegedly containing drug paraphernalia and narcotic “residue.”
In another case, $400 dollars was taken from a man who was allegedly carrying four Oxycodone pills while riding as a passenger in a vehicle that was stopped by the Reading Police.
Adams conceded that cases like these do occur, but referred to the money as “abandoned property,” because the individuals didn’t show up to court hearings to contest the takings.
“In these scenarios, we didn’t file charges, but we had cash associated with drugs that has been abandoned,” he said. “Who are we supposed to give it to?”
Berks County defense lawyer Joel Ready, who has represented clients whose belongings have been seized through civil forfeiture, said this thinking turns the U.S. Constitution on its head.
“Anybody who had $500 taken out of their pocket by the government and told, ‘Well, you’re going to have to prove that you didn’t do anything to get this back,’ is going to understand that this is a profound injustice,” Ready said. “Most people can’t afford to hire a lawyer to come in and get that money back.”
Rulli, the University of Pennsylvania professor, has also represented clients in forfeiture cases.
In one, Rulli said, police confiscated a piggy bank containing about $98 of birthday money belonging to a suspect drug dealer’s youngest daughter. Neither the target nor the daughter were ever charged with criminal wrongdoing. Still, the process of getting the piggy bank back was arduous.
“It took us over a year to get that $98 back,” he said.
When approached last month, Adams, at first, implied that recent statewide reform efforts and lawsuits had essentially made it impossible for his office to abuse civil asset forfeiture. Pennsylvania has passed legislative reforms, while both state and federal court rulings have broken on the side of limiting excessive seizure.
“We really have taken away the ability to abuse civil asset forfeiture in the state of Pennsylvania,” said Adams.
Pennsylvania, though, has not gone as far as other places in the country.
Nine states require a criminal conviction before an asset is seized. That reform was proposed in Pennsylvania, but it failed after lobbying from DAs. Other states have gone farther: North Carolina, New Mexico and Nebraska have abolished civil asset forfeiture altogether.
Adams says Pennsylvania should not follow that path.
“That would be saying to drug dealers: Keep your money. And keep at your illicit activity,” said Adams. “That’s absurd.”
The hard-charging DA, however, has made changes to how assets are seized in Berks.
During the course of reporting this story over two months, Adams announced a flurry of adjustments to the county’s program.
In March, Adams told Keystone Crossroads that he had decided to bar cash seizures of less than $500 — the limit had previously been $250. Then, in early April, Adams announced that he would divert $100,000 in forfeiture revenues to a county drug treatment center. By mid-April, Adams had announced another $25,000 disbursement to help fund a diversionary court program.
Adams had also initially implied that the years-long effort to take Daisilee Cruz’s SUV, which has been sitting in a police impound lot since 2016, might be linked to a continuing investigation into her role in Ambioris Cruz’s drug operation.
But, pressed about the case, Adams reversed course. He would return her vehicle “despite the evidence.”
He did not expand on the evidence to which he referred. In a later email, Adams said that his office had dropped the forfeiture because the car wasn’t “worth anything.”
To Andres Jalon, a lawyer who helped Cruz file paperwork over a year ago in a failed attempt to get her SUV back, Adams’ comment summarizes some of the deeper problems with forfeiture.
“Not valuable to who? The DA is looking at the car from a monetary standpoint because they want to make money,” Jalon said. “But I’m sure the vehicle was valuable to Daisilee, who has children and has to take them to school.”
Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads/.