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Philadelphia drops civil asset forfeiture case against family

By   /   December 19, 2014  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

The city of Philadelphia has dropped its attempt to seize two homes using civil asset forfeiture laws.

Photo provided by Institute for Justice

HOME SWEET HOME: Chris Sourovelis and his family will be allowed to return to their home after the city of Philadelphia dropped a much-publicized civil asset forfeiture claim against the family.

The city’s seizure of the homes made national headlines and became the basis for a lawsuit that challenges Philadelphia law enforcement agencies’ use of civil asset forfeiture in drug cases. That lawsuit will continue even though the city has dropped these two cases.

Chris Sourovelis and his family lost their home earlier this year after his son was caught by police selling $40 of heroin.

Their case, as we’ve reported on before, demonstrated some of the worst aspects of Philadelphia’s civil asset forfeiture program. The city’s police department and district attorneys’ office regularly seizes homes, cars and other property from suspected criminals without any conviction — and in some cases, without any charges being filed.

I’ve lived in Philadelphia for over 30 years. 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,” Sorovelis said Thursday in a statement. “But that’s exactly what happened to me and my family.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that challenges civil asset forfeiture cases across the country, took the case on behalf of the two families. Attorneys working on the lawsuit say the city has set up a “forfeiture machine” to take advantage of the perverse incentives created by the law.

The Philadelphia District Attorneys’ office defends the practice as being a useful tool to fight drug dealers and targets homes and cars because they can be used to fuel the drug trade.

But those seizures also help pad law enforcement’s bottom line.

From 2002 through 2012, law enforcement in Philadelphia seized more than 1,000 homes, 3,200 vehicles and $44 million in cash, according to data obtained by the Institute for Justice through an open records request.

Those assets provided more than $64 million in revenue to the Philadelphia DA’s office, because Pennsylvania law allows local law enforcement to keep the proceeds from forfeited property after it is seized and resold.

The cases in Philadelphia may spur legislative changes to how Pennsylvania police departments may use civil asset forfeiture laws.

State Sens. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, have announced plans to introduce a bill to require a criminal conviction before property can be seized by police.

“Recent media coverage has uncovered several cases in Pennsylvania where this well-intentioned law has been misapplied, resulting in questionable property seizures,” the two senators wrote in a memo to their colleagues announcing the legislation. “The resulting system allows property owners to be deprived of their due process, losing homes and other valuables without ever being charged for a crime.”

Minnesota became the first state in the nation to pass such a law last year, after similar abuses of civil asset forfeiture laws were uncovered there.