Art often imitates life. That was certainly true of a recent episode of ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, which took inspiration from IJ’s class action against Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture program. Fans who haven’t yet watched the sixth episode of the show’s fourth season are hereby warned: Spoilers ahead!
In the episode entitled “Stay Strong, Mama,” lead character Annalise Keating (played by Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis) meets with Claudia, one of her clients, in a class-action lawsuit against the city. In a strong arm move to force Claudia from the case, we learn that the Philadelphia district attorney is threatening to seize the house of Claudia’s mother because, unbeknownst to the mother, Claudia previously sold drugs there.
As Annalise explained to Claudia:
Annalise: “It’s called civil asset forfeiture, and it means the city can seize any asset if it’s used in the commission of a crime.”
Claudia: “But it’s my mother’s house, she wasn’t the one selling drugs out of there.”
Annalise: “But you did, so the city has the legal right to take the house away.”
Claudia: “That ain’t right.”
But do not worry. (Spoiler alert) It all ends well, with Annalise successfully preventing the house from being seized by holding a press conference to make the story “go viral” and generate outrage against the DA’s threat.
”Stay Strong, Mama” echoes the experiences of the Sourovelis family, the lead clients in IJ’s groundbreaking class action against Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture machine. Philadelphia actually seized the Sourovelis’ home in 2014 after their son was caught selling a small amount of drugs there. Thankfully, the Sourovelis’ home was saved from forfeiture several months after the launch of the case, and they continue to fight on for the constitutional rights of everyone else in the city.
Of course, in the IJ case, it was forfeiture proceedings that spurred a class action, whereas in the show, it was a class action that spurred the DA’s forfeiture threat. But both the episode and real life show how civil forfeiture can be used against innocent property owners to benefit law enforcement: In the show, the DA would benefit by forcing a client to drop out of a class action against the government, while, in real life, Philadelphia DAs are paid entirely out of the proceeds of the property they were able to seize and forfeit. Both are wrong, and both must end. That’s why the Institute for Justice will continue to fight, both in Philadelphia and across the nation, until civil forfeiture is cancelled once and for all.