Homeowners Move to Suspend Philadelphia’s Practice of Using Civil Forfeiture to Seize and Seal Homes Without Warning

PHILADELPHIA—Today, the Institute for Justice and a group of Philadelphia homeowners asked a federal court to suspend the city’s shocking practice of using civil forfeiture to seize hundreds of its citizens’ homes each year without providing them any warning or an opportunity to go before a judge.


The motion for a preliminary injunction filed today comes less than a month after IJ and its clients filed a class-action lawsuit challenging Philadelphia’s broader civil-forfeiture program that seizes and forfeits almost $6 million each year from its citizens—whether they have been charged with a crime or not.


“In 1993, the Supreme Court was crystal clear when it ruled in United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property that the government cannot seize homes without first giving owners notice and a chance to be heard,” said IJ attorney and lead counsel on the case, Darpana Sheth. “The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office provides homeowners neither opportunity. Hundreds of Philadelphians first learn that they could lose their home to civil forfeiture when police surprise them at their front door and throw them and their families out on the street.”


IJ moves to suspend Philadelphia’s “seize and seal” policy as more of the country awakens to the dire threat civil forfeiture poses to property rights and due process. Today, The Washington Post ran part two in a three-part series that exposes law enforcement’s rampant abuse of forfeiture laws through a program that targets the cash of unsuspecting, innocent motorists on America’s highways.


Americans are also awakening to the perverse incentives within civil forfeiture laws that lure law enforcement away from the impartial pursuit of justice and toward policing for profit. A new report published by IJ entitled Bad Apples or Bad Laws? Testing the Incentives of Civil Forfeiture details the results of a cutting-edge experiment aimed at determining whether civil forfeiture changes law enforcement behavior, and if so, how.


The results show that the incentives in civil-forfeiture laws do change behavior, and not in a good way: Civil forfeiture creates a strong temptation for law enforcement to seize property to pad their own budgets. The experiment’s results play out in real life in Philadelphia, where forfeiture revenue equals almost 20 percent of the District Attorney’s Office’s general budget.


“The study finds that problems associated with civil forfeiture are not caused by a few ‘bad apple’ police officers or rogue prosecutors, but rather are the inevitable result of bad laws that encourage bad behavior,” said IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock. “Civil forfeiture creates a real and perverse incentive for law enforcement to pursue profits instead of justice.”


The study was designed and conducted by Bart Wilson and Michael Preciado. Wilson, a professor at Chapman University and an expert in experimental economics, and Preciado, an attorney, conclude from the study that “[w]hen civil forfeiture puts people in a position to choose between benefiting themselves or the overall public, people choose themselves.”


The Institute for Justice is leading the fight against civil forfeiture nationwide. To learn more about IJ’s lawsuit in Philadelphia and its new study, Bad Apples or Bad Laws?, visit ij.org.