A class-action federal civil rights lawsuit has been filed by the Institute for Justice and the Philadelphia civil liberties law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing and Feinberg, accuses Philadelphia, Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office for violating the civil rights of thousands of Philadelphians who have had their homes confiscated by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office.
“The city’s prosecutors have turned this legal tool into a machine that devours people’s property, while taking away their constitutional rights,” Darpana Sheth, an attorney for the institute, said at a recent press conference.
According to Court House News, lead plaintiff Christos Sourovelis claims Philadelphia abuses the process of civil asset forfeiture, in which property used in a crime is charged with the crime and seized.
“There’s no closure. It’s scary,” said his wife Markela Sourovelis, whose family was kicked out of their Somerton home in May, about a month after police confiscated a small amount of drugs from her son. “It’s destroyed our lives. I don’t know what else to do.”
To re-enter their home, Sourvelelis and his wife were brought to a hearing without a judge or jury and told by an assistant district attorney that they would have to relinquish any defense that they were innocent owners of the property and would have to bar YS from entering the home. The family has been able to move back in for now, but they still don’t know if the city will confiscate their $300,000 house.
All of the other plaintiffs claim the city systematically violates the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment. They seek declaratory judgment that the way Philadelphia does this is unconstitutional, and injunction, return of all seized property and nominal damages of one dollar, plus attorney’s fees. Most states have such laws, but the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has used civil asset forfeiture to make reclaiming the property so onerous that it outstrips the value of property. In fact, Philadelphia seizes an average of $5.8 million worth of assets every year, compared to Kings County (Brooklyn) in New York and Los Angeles County, which, while both larger than Philadelphia, brought in $1.2 million in assets.
According to Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, Philadelphia has one of the largest and most aggressive civil-forfeiture programs in the country and officials aren’t transparent about how the money is spent. He said, “Police and prosecutors, the very people who are out there taking property, are receiving direct financial benefits. They get to keep all of the property they forfeit for their own use, giving them a very direct and perverse incentive to take property and to make a profit, rather than to pursue justice.”