Fact Check: Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office Misleads on Civil Forfeiture

CONTACT: Nico Perrino, (703) 682-9320; nperrino@ij.org; endforfeiture.com

For weeks, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office refused to respond to the facts revealed in a class-action lawsuit challenging the city’s shocking system of using civil forfeiture to seize nearly $6 million in property from thousands of its citizens each year.

Now, the DA’s Office is speaking out to anyone who will listen. In recent interviews about the lawsuit, Office representatives have not only misrepresented how Philadelphia’s civil-forfeiture program operates, but have also maligned lead plaintiff Christos Sourovelis and his wife Markela. The Sourovelises stand to lose their Somerton home despite the fact that neither of them has been convicted of, or even charged with, any crime.

We fact-checked some of the DA’s Office’s recent claims below:

1) Myth: “Forfeiture deters drug dealing.”

Beth Grossman, Chief of the District Attorney’s Public Nuisance Task Force, claimed in a recent interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, that “forfeiture deters drug dealing” and that without civil forfeiture, criminals would continue to break the law.

Reality: Civil forfeiture only serves as an unaccountable revenue stream for law enforcement.

Philadelphia spends nearly 40 percent of its forfeiture revenue on salaries, including the salaries of the very officials doing the seizing and forfeiting. Most tellingly, it spends none of its forfeiture revenue on community-based drug and crime-fighting programs. Philadelphia has numerous other ways to deter crime, including criminal forfeiture, stringent bail conditions or even fines and incarceration. If you want to know where Philadelphia’s interests really lie, as they say, follow the money.

2) Myth: Civil forfeiture is necessary.

During an interview on 1210 WPHD last month, host Dick Morris asked Grossman why the DA’s Office doesn’t wait for a criminal conviction before pursuing a civil-forfeiture action. In response Grossman said, “because the law does not require that.”

Reality: Cities do not need to use civil forfeiture—many only use criminal forfeiture.

Technically, Grossman is right—state law does not require that she wait for a criminal conviction before pursuing a civil forfeiture action. But neither does the law require that the DA’s Office pursue civil forfeiture in the first place.

The use of civil forfeiture is completely discretionary. Many cities, including Pittsburgh, rarely use civil forfeiture and prefer to use criminal forfeiture. Criminal forfeiture allows law enforcement to take the ill-gotten gains from property owners after they have been convicted of a crime and without violating their due-process rights. In 2011 alone, Philadelphia filed 6,560 civil forfeiture petitions. By contrast, Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, filed roughly 200 civil forfeiture petitions from 2008-2011.

3) Myth: Philadelphia’s “Seize and Seal” Policy is constitutional.

Deputy District Attorney George D. Mosee Jr. told thePhiladelphia Daily Newsthat the city’s practice of using civil forfeiture to seize hundreds of its citizens’ homes each year without any advance warning or an opportunity to go before a judge is constitutional because the city’s belief that “drugs are being sold from the property” constitutes “exigent circumstances.”

Reality: The Supreme Court has made clear that a notice and hearing are required for seizure.

In the 1993 U.S. Supreme Court case,United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property, the Court held that “the Due Process Clause requires the Government to afford notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard before seizing real property subject to civil forfeiture.” In that case, police “uncovered about 89 pounds of marijuana, marijuana seeds, vials containing hashish oil, and drug paraphernalia.” Nevertheless, the Supreme Court did not find exigent circumstances. Philadelphia law enforcement routinely seizes and seals homes for much less—for example, the sale of $40 worth of drugs outside the home—all without the due process required by law.

4) Myth: Civil forfeiture figures are “overly-inflated.”

When confronted with statistics showing that Philadelphia has taken in over $64 million from civil forfeiture over the past 11 years, Grossman stated during her appearance on 1210 WPHD, “I do believe that those numbers are overly-inflated.” She has made similar claims since then.

Reality: The figures are from the DA’s Office’s own annual reports.

The numbers, which also show that forfeiture proceeds have paid over $25 million in salaries, are compiled fromannual reports submitted by the Philadelphia DA’s Office to the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General.

5) Myth: Law-abiding people are not harmed by civil forfeiture.

Grossman and Mosee suggest during Philadelphia Daily News and Slate interviews, respectively, that civil forfeiture looks out for innocent people by protecting them from public nuisances.

Reality: Civil forfeiture creates innocent victims.

Tell that to Christos and Markela Sourovelis. They had their Somerton home seized using civil forfeiture after their son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside the house. Christos and Markela have not been accused of any crime and have sworn in both state and federal court that they had no knowledge of their son’s illegal activity or involvement with drugs. Nevertheless, Philadelphia kicked them and their two innocent daughters out of their home for a week and is now trying to permanently take their home, all to pad its law-enforcement agencies’ budgets.

6) Myth: Markela “could have been arrested for obstructing justice.”

In an interview with Slate, Grossman stated that Markela “could have been arrested for obstructing justice,” by refusing to restrain Max, the family dog, on the day police showed up to arrest her son.

Reality: Markela was just complying with a police order.

The DA’s Office’s claim that complying with a police order amounts to obstruction of justice is nothing more than Orwellian doublespeak. Markela did restrain the dog. Police had a gun to Max’s head and asked Markela to restrain him, which she did.

Even with their broken silence, there is still one question the DA’s Office refuses to answer.

What proportion of their salaries are paid using civil-forfeiture proceeds?

The Institute for Justice is leading the fight against civil forfeiture nationwide. To learn more about IJ’s lawsuit in Philadelphia, visit endforfeiture.com/philadelphia-forfeiture.