Class Action Lawsuit Challenges the Philadelphia Forfeiture Machine

By Darpana Sheth

For the past few months, Chris and Markela Sourovelis have been living a nightmare. It started on May 8 when police showed up on their doorstep to kick them and their family out of their home in suburban Philadelphia. Without any notice or opportunity to see a judge, the Sourovelises were told to pack up their belongings and immediately leave because prosecutors had obtained a secret court order to “seize and seal” the house using civil forfeiture. Prosecutors who seized the home threatened to sell it because Chris’ son had been arrested in the home a few weeks earlier for selling $40 worth of drugs. Chris, who owns the property, was never charged with any crime.

Unfortunately, in the City of Brotherly Love, Chris and Markela’s story is not unique. The city’s prosecutors are using civil forfeiture like a machine that strips people of their constitutional rights in order to devour their hard-earned cash, cars and homes.

From 2002 through 2012, the city’s police and prosecutors took in more than $64 million in forfeiture proceeds by seizing more than 1,100 homes, 3,200 vehicles and $44 million in cash from citizens. That’s more than twice the annual forfeiture revenue of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Los Angeles County combined and represents almost 20 percent of the general budget of the city’s District Attorney’s Office.

To make matters worse, these forfeiture proceeds directly benefit the city’s police and prosecutors. Each year, Philadelphia rakes in an average of almost $6 million in forfeiture revenue, which Pennsylvania law requires be turned over to law enforcement, rather than put in a neutral fund.

Where does all this money go? Over $25 million of the $64 million in forfeited cash and property the city took in went to pay salaries, including the salaries of the very prosecutors doing the forfeiting. It is this perverse profit incentive that fuels Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine.

This is how the machine works: Property owners like the Sourovelises who have their cash, cars or homes seized are told to go to Courtroom 478 in iconic City Hall for a “hearing.” But when they get there, they do not see a judge or a jury; there is not even a court reporter to transcribe these so-called hearings. It is just a room staffed with city prosecutors who run the show and call all the shots.

It is the prosecutors who frequently tell property owners that the process is simple and hiring a lawyer is not necessary. It is the prosecutors who require homeowners like Chris to sign away their legal rights and agree to onerous conditions in order to be let back into their homes. It is the prosecutors who force property owners to return to Courtroom 478 time and time again, sometimes up to a dozen times in a single case. It is the prosecutors who mark cases for default—an automatic win for the government—if the property owner misses a single hearing. And ultimately it is the prosecutors who stand to profit from this scheme.

To end this unconscionable practice, IJ filed a federal lawsuit—and the first class action lawsuit in IJ’s history—on behalf of the Sourovelises and all other property owners in Philadelphia who are living the nightmare of civil forfeiture. A victory in the lawsuit would not only benefit the property owners IJ is representing, but all Philadelphians who are caught up in an upside-down legal process that violates their constitutional rights and treats them like cash machines.

Darpana Sheth is an IJ attorney.

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