Challenge to Phila. civil forfeiture law continues

Christos and Markela Sourovelis at their Somerton home, from which they were ousted because of a son's drug dealing.
Christos and Markela Sourovelis at their Somerton home, from which they were ousted because of a son's drug dealing. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 20, 2014

Philadelphia prosecutors agreed Thursday to halt efforts to seize the homes of two of the lead plaintiffs in a widely publicized federal suit challenging the city's use of civil forfeiture laws in drug cases.

But Christos Sourovelis and Doila Welch, both of whom saw their houses threatened after police arrested a relative dealing drugs on their properties, said they intended to keep on fighting.

In agreements of dismissal filed in Common Pleas Court, the District Attorney's Office agreed to drop its cases against properties owned by Sourovelis and Welch as long as both owners took "reasonable measures" to ensure no further drug crimes occurred there.

The decision comes four months after they and two other Philadelphia homeowners joined a class-action lawsuit, challenging the city's civil forfeiture program. Ostensibly aimed at depriving drug traffickers of cash, cars, property, and other fruits of crime, such seizures have increasingly drawn scrutiny for cases in which a homeowner is never accused of anything but still faces eviction from a house only tangentially related to a crime.

"After months of uncertainty, my family can finally rest easy knowing that our home is our home again," Sourovelis said Thursday. "That's why we're going to keep fighting for everyone still trapped in Philadelphia's civil forfeiture nightmare."

In May, Sourovelis, 52, and his wife, Markela, were kicked out of their $350,000 house in the Somerton section of Northeast Philadelphia - more than a month after police arrested their 22-year-old son, Yianni, for selling less than $40 of heroin outside.

Although Sourovelis said his family had no idea what their son was up to, prosecutors moved for permanent forfeiture of their property. The law allows authorities to go after properties suspected as criminal hot spots even if no one associated with them is ever charged.

And unlike a criminal case, where prosecutors must offer "proof beyond a reasonable doubt," authorities in forfeiture cases must only show it is more likely than not that the property was used in or obtained as a result of a crime.

Property owners can challenge the seizures but those efforts can take months and multiple court visits to resolve. And in Sourovelis' case, his family was allowed to return to their home within a week of the initial seizure but - until Thursday - lived there fearing they could lose the legal fight over the fate of their property.

"I've lived in Philadelphia for over 30 years," Sourovelis said. "I never thought it was possible for the police to just show up at my doorstep without notice and take my house when I've done nothing wrong."

Prosecutors assigned to the Public Nuisance Task Force, the unit that handles forfeiture cases, have described the Sourovelis case as an "exception rather than the rule" in the employment of a tool they say has aided in cleaning up dozens of rough neighborhoods across Philadelphia.

First Assistant District Attorney Ed McCann on Thursday said his office and the Sourovelis family were already in negotiations to dismiss the forfeiture case before the federal lawsuit was filed.

"This tool has been used to protect neighborhoods, to abate nuisances and stop drug dealing," he said. "The aim is not monetary; the aim is public safety."

But Darpana Sheth, the family's lawyer and an attorney with the public-interest law firm Institute for Justice, contended the Sourovelises would still be mired in a legal battle for their house if not for the publicity their lawsuit had received.

"What they have basically said is, 'We seize first and ask questions later,' " she said. "I don't think you can understate the fact that the D.A.'s Office and the city have taken notice now and started to reevaluate their procedures. That is a direct result of the lawsuit."

Two of Sheth's clients in the federal suit still have houses targeted for forfeiture and she is seeking class-action status for the suit. Sourovelis and Welch will remain as parties to the suit and seek a court's acknowledgment that their rights were violated during the city's forfeiture efforts.


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-854-2608 @jeremyrroebuck

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