Lawsuit: Philly 'ground zero' for forfeiture abuse

Posted: August 14, 2014

IMAGINE THAT government employees show up at your doorstep unannounced and force you out of your home - immediately. Utility workers suddenly pull up and shut off your gas and electric.

You haven't been charged with a crime, but you grab your belongings and go. You have no choice. They screw the door shut behind you and tell you to talk to the judge. Except there's no judge to talk to.

Iraq? North Korea? Uzbekistan?

Try Philadelphia. It's called civil forfeiture and it nets the city millions of dollars a year. Sometimes, police and prosecutors target drug dens, but sometimes the homeowners are innocent.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, filed a federal class-action lawsuit on Monday seeking to end the practice in Philadelphia, which it calls "ground zero for forfeiture abuse."

"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 news conference yesterday at Independence Mall.

Philadelphia's forfeiture program rakes in about $6 million a year, twice as much revenue as similar programs in Brooklyn and Los Angeles County combined, according to the suit.

"There's no closure. It's scary," said 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."

The Sourovelis 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. They've gone to forfeiture proceedings, but haven't seen a judge.

"The one D.A. made it clear to me that this happens all the time, like it was a joke," Sourovelis said.

Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, said Philadelphia has one of the largest and most aggressive civil-forfeiture programs in the country, and city officials aren't transparent about how the money is spent.

"Police and prosecutors, the very people who are out there taking property, are receiving direct financial benefits," Bullock said. "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."

Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams, said the program targets drug dealers and users. The revenue from the seizures - including cash and vehicles - is split among the Police Department and D.A.'s office.

"In all these efforts, we follow applicable law to protect the rights of all those involved - not only drug dealers and those associated with them, but the law-abiding citizens who are negatively affected by them," Jamerson said in a statement.

Mayor Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, declined to comment yesterday.

On Twitter: @wbender99


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