The city of Philadelphia has agreed to stop allowing law enforcement to profit from civil forfeiture, a controversial practice involving the seizure and sale of private property from a criminal suspect. The city has also agreed to set up a $3 million fund to compensate those affected by it.
The settlement was announced Tuesday morning and concludes a 2014 federal lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice, which had brought the case on behalf of Chris Sourovelis and several other plaintiffs who have had property taken by law enforcement through civil forfeiture.
The terms of the settlement dictate that the city cannot seize property for minor drug crimes like possession, will not forfeit cash in amounts less than $250, and will not use any proceeds to pay police officers or prosecutors, to name a few conditions.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner, along with other officials gathered at a City Hall press conference Tuesday afternoon, lauded the near-total abolition of civil forfeiture in the city.
Kenney said the settlement etches in stone the city’s 2017 decision to extinguish the practice.
“This is a good resolution,” the mayor said, “because it reforms a system that, left unchecked, can prey upon the most vulnerable.”
“This settlement agreement was a long time coming, and something that our city needs to move our criminal justice reform efforts forward,” Krasner said. ”We will no longer use civil asset forfeiture to take grandma’s possessions because her grandchild got into a little bit of trouble.”
However, Krasner noted the practice would continue to be used in cases involving drug houses owned by criminal enterprises.
Law enforcement agencies in Philadelphia have made as much as $1 million per year through civil forfeiture, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report. However, they will not be greatly impacted by the absence of those funds, according to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, because law enforcement has been weening itself off of that money since before the practice was pared down.
“It’s not really going to affect the way we do business,” Ross said.
City Solicitor Marcel Pratt said the settlement was the product of four years of legal wrangling and negotiations between both sides.
Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice and point-person in the institute’s anti-civil forfeiture effort, said in a statement: “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.”
Sourovelis, who according to the institute nearly lost his house after his son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs, praised the settlement.
“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,” Sourovelis said. “No one in Philadelphia should ever have to go through the nightmare my family faced.”