Philadelphia Forced to Reform Unjust Confiscation

Four years ago we told you the story of Markela and Chris Sourovelis, Philadelphians who lost their home when their son committed a minor drug crime thanks to an outrageous practice called civil asset forfeiture.

This week justice was served for the Sourovelis family and hundreds of other Philadelphians that lost their property without due process. In a class-action lawsuit settlement, the city of Philadelphia has agreed to dramatically reform its controversial civil asset forfeiture program and pay $3 million in restitution to its victims.

The Institute for Justice lawyer who represented the Sourovelises, Darpana Sheth, noted:

For too long, Philadelphia treated its citizens like ATMs, ensnaring thousands of people in a system designed to strip people of their property and their rights. No more. Today's groundbreaking agreement will end years of abuse and create a fund to compensate innocent owners.

According to the Institute for Justice, Philly raked in twice as much forfeiture revenue as Brooklyn and Los Angeles Counties combined in 2010, despite a smaller population. Between 2002 and 2014, Philadelphia law enforcement seized 1,248 homes, more than 3,500 vehicles and more than $50 million in cash, raising some $72.6 million.

A 2015 report by the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found that almost a third of cash forfeiture cases in Philadelphia involved money owned by people who had not been found guilty of a crime.

Tuesday’s consent decree sets strict new limits for when Philadelphia law enforcement can engage in forfeiture. Police can no longer pursue lunch-money-sized confiscations. This proved to be a problem as law enforcement took as little as $9 in some cases. From now on, cops can take less than $1,000 only if they also arrest someone or collect other evidence for a criminal case. In no cases can the district attorney bring a forfeiture complaint for less than $250.

These changes are critical to reversing the perverse “profit motive” of Philadelphia officials. Several assistant DAs received 100 percent of their pay from forfeiture revenue, including the top official overseeing the practice. At times, this cash stream accounted for nearly one-fifth of the DA’s total budget.

The settlement also requires changes in how residents navigate the legal system to reclaim their property. Previously, Philadelphians caught in the asset forfeiture machine had to repeatedly appear for hearings in Room 478a small “courtroom” in the upper floors of Philadelphia's City Hall. The hearings were run by prosecutors. No judge was present, and defendants were not afforded court-appointed lawyers. If a defendant missed a hearing, they could lose their property.

Unfortunately, the city will not completely end the practice of confiscation without a conviction. Philadelphia DA Larry Kraser says his office will require a conviction for asset forfeiture 99 percent of the time.

Still, this is a big win for the many people who've been mistreated. As Chris Sourovelis points out, there are now protections in place to prevent future injustices:

I’m glad that there is finally a measure of justice for people like me who did nothing wrong but still found themselves fighting to keep what was rightly theirs. No one in Philadelphia should ever have to go through the nightmare my family faced.

State lawmakers have tried to reform civil asset forfeiture for all Pennsylvanians. Last June their efforts culminated in modest reforms of state asset forfeiture laws. The reforms increase the reporting requirements for asset forfeiture and raise the burden of proof necessary to seize property. Yet, cash, cars, and even homes can still be forfeited without a conviction.

As opposed to most legal proceedings, civil asset forfeiture turns justice on its head, forcing property owners to prove their innocence and that their property itself is innocent.

So while progress has been made, there remains plenty of work left to do.