Philadelphia Dismantles Asset Forfeiture Program, Pays Citizens Back

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on September 24, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There are times when you have to read a case five times before you are sure you understand it. And once you do, you realize you got it right the first time -- it never made any sense at all.

That's true with Philadelphia's Asset Forfeiture Program, which was radically altered based on a recent settlement agreement. What started the suit? National attention paid to the Sourovelis family, whose home was seized because, unbeknownst to them, their son brokered a $40 drug deal in their front yard.

Philly's Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws -- Self-Servingly Profitable

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize any property, including houses, if it is suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not charged with a crime. But Philadelphia was taking this law to an extreme unlike any other city, which led the Institute for Justice to file suit on behalf of the Sourovelis family in 2014. Their house was seized without warning after their son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside. Literally, they dropped their son off at court-ordered rehab, and came home to find the police had locked them out of their house.

And the Sourovelises were not the only ones. The city was seizing up to 500 homes each year, violating a multitude of constitutional rights and creating an illegal profit incentive. Forfeiture revenues were going directly to police and district attorney budgets, creating an annual stream of $5.6 million per year straight to their coffers. How convenient.

Unconstitutional Seizures in Philadelphia -- Too Ironic

Philadelphia citizens, whose assets has been seized, had to jump through administrative hoops in order to get their property back. One such hoop was a series of hearings in a remote courtroom in City Hall. These hearings were run by prosecutors, without a judge, and no court-ordered defense counsel. If even one hearing was missed, the property was forfeited outright. With a plethora of constitutional rights violated in the City of Brotherly Love, it is amazing the Founding Fathers didn't leap out of their graves.

Under the terms of the settlement, codified in two binding consent decrees, Philadelphia cannot seek property forfeitures for simple drug possession, and cannot seize petty amounts of cash without accompanying arrests or evidence in a criminal case. Judges will now be in charge of forfeiture hearings, and the settlement bans the Philadelphia district attorney and Philadelphia Police Department from using forfeiture revenue to fund their payroll. This was a huge hit to their budget; the amount brought in under this program was more than Los Angeles' and Brooklyn's asset forfeiture, combined. There was also a $3 million settlement fund which will be dispersed to qualifying members of the class action based on the circumstances of their cases.

As for the Sourovelises, their forfeiture case was dropped, given the national attention. Over half of the states have forfeiture laws. If you believe your property has been seized in violation of your constitutional due process rights, contact a local civil rights attorney. A lawyer will be able to apply state and federal laws to your case, and inform you of your rights and how best to proceed to retrieve your property.

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