PHILADELPHIA—Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to take your money and property when you have done nothing wrong—and then pocket the proceeds. And nowhere is this happening more than in Philadelphia, which forces property owners into an automated, machine-like civil-forfeiture scheme. But a class-action lawsuit announced today by the Institute for Justice, a national civil liberties law firm, and a group of Philadelphians seeks to end the city’s particularly shocking system of seizing nearly $6 million in property from thousands of its citizens each year.
This is how the city’s forfeiture machine works: Property owners who find out that Philadelphia is threatening to take their cash, cars and even homes must go to Courtroom 478 in City Hall. But Courtroom 478 isn’t a courtroom at all: there is no judge or jury, just the prosecutors who run the show. Owners who ask if they need a lawyer are frequently told that one isn’t necessary, only to then be given a stack of complicated legal documents they must fill out under oath. Time and time again, property owners must return to Courtroom 478—up to ten or more times in some cases— to answer questions and prove their property was never involved in a crime. If they miss a single appearance, they can lose their property forever.
Making matters worse, Philadelphia’s police and prosecutors get to keep and use everything that the machine snatches up. Philadelphia’s population is smaller than Brooklyn, New York’s and Los Angeles County’s, but Philadelphia brings in twice as much forfeiture revenue as the two—combined. Forfeiture revenue equals almost 20 percent of the District Attorney’s Office’s annual budget and the city spends nearly 40 percent of those proceeds on salaries, including the salaries of the very police and prosecutors doing the seizing.
“Philadelphia’s forfeiture scheme is especially outrageous. It allows the District Attorneys to pad their budget with millions of dollars in unaccountable funds by stripping innocent residents of their rights and property,” said IJ attorney and lead counsel on the case, Darpana Sheth. “Over a ten-year period police and prosecutors took in over $64 million in forfeiture proceeds—with $25 million going toward their salaries. The city’s residents are not ATMs.”
IJ client Christos “Chris” Sourovelis is one of the thousands of people each year who get ensnared by Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine. Chris lives with his family in a middle-class neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia. Out of the blue on May 8, 2014, the police showed up and seized the family home because Chris’s son had been caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside of the house. As a result, the entire family was thrown out of their home for one week, even though Chris and his wife were never charged with or convicted of any wrongdoing. The family was allowed back in the house, but only under the condition that they kick out their son and agree to waive their legal rights in any future forfeiture proceedings. Since May, the Sourovelises have been living a nightmare, constantly fearing that they may lose their family home forever.
“I did not do anything wrong, yet Philadelphia is trying to take my house,” explained Chris. “If this can happen to me and my family, it can happen to anybody. I want to get my house back, but more importantly, I want to end civil forfeiture in Philadelphia for good.”
Along with Chris, IJ, aided by local counsel David Rudovsky, a founding partner of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, is also representing Doila Welch and Norys Hernandez to save their family homes. The class action means a victory will benefit all Philadelphians whose property is threatened with civil forfeiture.
“In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice’s forfeiture fund held more than $1.8 billion, which shows that civil forfeiture needs to end not just in Philadelphia, but across the United States,” said IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock. “Allowing law enforcement to keep the proceeds of forfeited property gives them a perverse financial incentive to use civil forfeiture. No one in the U.S. should lose their property without being convicted of, or even charged with, any crime. As Philadelphia shows, fair and impartial law enforcement cannot exist so long as we allow this policing for profit.”
A 2010 report from the Institute for Justice looked at forfeiture laws for all 50 states and found Pennsylvania has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws and practices in the U.S. Policing for Profit is the most comprehensive national study to examine civil forfeiture laws and the first study to grade the civil forfeiture laws of all 50 states and the federal government.
The Institute for Justice is leading the fight against civil forfeiture nationwide. To learn more, visit endforfeiture.com.