Philadelphia, PA- The Institute for Justice has filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia challenging the city’s aggressive civil forfeiture practices. Three plaintiffs named in the suit claim that their property has been improperly seized, violating their rights granted by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
One of the plaintiffs, Christos Sourovelis, claims that the city of Philadelphia evicted his family from their home, valued at about $300,000, earlier this year after Sourovelis’s son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside of the home. In an interview, Sourovelis said “I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t bother anybody. But we struggle from week to week not knowing what will happen.”
The city allowed the couple to move back into the home under the conditions they removed the son from the home and waive all legal rights in future civil forfeiture proceedings.
Sourovelis’s wife, Markela, said “it’s a constant battle- come this month, come that month…it’s scary.” The couple was never charged with any crime related to the action of their son.
Institute for Justice lawyer Darpana Sheth said that Philadelphia has turned the civil forfeiture process into a “veritable machine, devouring real and personal property from thousands of residents, many of whom are innocent, and converting that property into a $5.8 million average annual stream of revenue.”
Sheth said that civil forfeiture is “nothing more than state sanctioned theft” that reverses the burden of proof onto property owners rather than prosecutors.
The suit claims that the city of Philadelphia has made fighting civil forfeiture proceedings difficult because those who have had their property seized are not able to see a judge before the seizure takes place. Instead, according to the suit, people who have either been found innocent of crimes or not charged at all are subjected to hearings where prosecutors are in control.
Markela Sourovelis said “We haven’t seen a judge. We keep getting sent to this 478 room and for months, we go there and fill out papers.” Their case has been delayed several times in that courtroom. Sheth said that Courtroom 478 is not a courtroom at all: “There’s no judge, there’s no jury, there’s not even a court reporter to transcribe these so-called hearings– instead it’s the prosecutors that run Courtroom 478.”
The Institute for Justice, after reviewing over 8,000 Philadelphia forfeiture cases, found that property owners were forced to return to court at least five times on average. Philadelphia civil rights lawyer David Rudovsky said missing one court date can mean the property is forfeited. “If they can’t tolerate going to court 10 times to resolve this – as many people can’t, with work and other commitments – they lose out,” he said.
Rudovsky also said prosecutors are often the ones giving legal advice, telling property owners that their cases are “simple” and do not require legal representation.
Philadelphia has seized over $64 million worth of property over the last ten years- this amount is nearly double that seized by Los Angeles County, CA and Brooklyn, NY combined. The proceeds of seizures and forfeitures goes to law enforcement: “It goes to pay salaries, including to prosecutors who wield an enormous amount of discretion to bring forfeiture claims,” said Sheth.
Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams’s spokeswoman, Tasha Emerson, said the program is a useful one in its fight against drug trafficking.
The plaintiffs have requested that a judge put an end to Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture program. “If this can happen to me and my family, it can happen to anybody. I want to get my house back, but more importantly, I want to end civil forfeiture in Philadelphia for good,” said Christos Sourovelis.