Philadelphia Forfeiture

Sourovelis v. City of Philadelphia
Fighting the Philadelphia Forfeiture Machine

The most terrifying place in Philadelphia is Courtroom 478 in City Hall. This is where property owners enter Philadelphia’s Civil Forfeiture Machine. Civil forfeiture is a little-known legal device that allows law enforcement officials to take your property, sell it and pocket the proceeds—even if you have done nothing wrong.

Philadelphia’s automated, machine-like forfeiture scheme is unprecedented in size. From 2002 to 2012, Philadelphia took in over $64 million in forfeiture funds—or almost $6 million per year. In 2011 alone, the city’s prosecutors filed 6,560 forfeiture petitions to take cash, cars, homes and other property. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office used over $25 million of that $64 million to pay salaries, including the salaries of the very prosecutors who brought the forfeiture actions. This is almost twice as much as what all other Pennsylvania counties spent on salaries combined.
This is how the city’s forfeiture machine works: Property owners who have their cash, cars or homes seized must go to Courtroom 478. But Courtroom 478 isn’t a courtroom at all: there is no judge or jury, just a scheduler and the prosecutors who run the show. Owners who ask for a lawyer are frequently told their case isn’t complicated and a lawyer isn’t necessary, but are then given a stack of complicated legal documents to fill out under oath. Time and time again, property owners must return to Courtroom 478—up to ten or more times in some cases. If they miss a single appearance, they can lose their property forever.

Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine stacks the deck against property owners and leads city officials to police for profit instead of justice. To end these unconscionable and unconstitutional practices, the Institute for Justice and a group of property owners have brought a major, class-action lawsuit in federal court. The lawsuit will take the profit incentive out of civil forfeiture and protect innocent people who are caught in an upside-down legal process that treats them like cash machines while violating their constitutional rights.


Essential Background

Audio, Video and Images

Backgrounder: Fighting the Philadelphia Forfeiture Machine

Client Video

Client Photos

Press Conference Video (August 12, 2014)

Latest Release: Judge Denies Motion to Dismiss Philadelphia Forfeiture Lawsuit (May 13, 2015) Press Conference Photos (August 12, 2014)

Launch Release (Local): Federal Lawsuit Challenges Philadelphia’s Civil Forfeiture Machine (August 12, 2014)

Legal Briefs and Decisions

Complaint (August 11, 2014)

Launch Release (National): ‪Federal Lawsuit Challenges Philadelphia’s Civil Forfeiture Machine‬ (August 12, 2014)  Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction (September 8, 2014) 
Amended Complaint (November 17, 2014)
Memorandum Opinion Denying Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (May 12, 2015)
Proposed Settlement (June 22, 2015)

Case Timeline

Filed Lawsuit: 


August 11, 2014

Court Filed:


United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania



None available

 Current Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania



Additional Releases

Maps, Charts and Facts

Release: Philadelphians Save Homes From Civil Forfeiture Machine But Continue Legal Fight Over City’s Unconstitutional Program (December 18, 2014)

Release: Fact Check: Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office Misleads on Civil Forfeiture (September 23, 2014)

Facts and Figures

Release: Homeowners Move to Suspend Philadelphia’s Practice of Using Civil Forfeiture to Seize and Seal Homes Without Warning (September 8, 2014) 

Strategic Research Report: Bad Apples or Bad Laws? Testing the Incentives of Civil Forfeiture

Op-eds, News Articles and Links

Article: U.S. Judge says suit against Phila. can proceed Philadelphia Inquirer (May 13, 2015)
Editorial: Forfeiting their rights Philadelphia Inquirer (January 2, 2015)
Article: District attorney backs off from taking citizens' homes Philadelphia Daily News (December 19, 2014)
Article: D.A. drops two civil forfeiture actions under controversial law Metro - Philadelphia (December 18, 2014)
Article: Philly man charged by rogue cops lost his home to DA's civil-forfeiture program City Paper (November 14, 2014)
Opinion: Here's how Pa.'s civil forfeiture law encourages for-profit policing The Patriot-News (October 6, 2014)
Article: Civil Forfeiture in Philadelphia (October 6, 2014)
Video: Civil Forfeiture Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (October 5, 2014)
Article: The growing outcry over police confiscation BBC World News - Washington DC Bureau (September 17, 2014)
Article: Inside the Worst Forfeiture Court in America Washington Free Beacon (September 16, 2014)
Article: Come and Take It - Washington DC Bureau (September 15, 2014)
Article: Homeowners ask for suspension of city's civil-forfeiture program Philadelphia Daily News (September 9, 2014)

Article: Philadalphia's Civil Asset Forfeiture 'Machine' Cato Daily Podcast (September 8, 2014)

Article: Parents' house seized after son's drug bust CNN (September 3, 2014)

Editorial: What's Yours Is Theirs Wall Street Journal (September 2, 2014)

Video: Philly police seizing homes CNN (September 1, 2014)

Opinion: Philadelphia Earns Millions By Seizing Cash And Homes From People Never Charged With A Crime Forbes (August 26, 2014)

Article: Fighting forfeiture Northeast Times (August 21, 2014)

Opinion: Presumed innocent 
Philadelphia Inquirer (August 18, 2014)

Editorial: Not-very-civil forfeiture Philadelphia Daily News (August 15, 2014)
Opinion: Fight the 'forfeiture machine' Philadelphia Inquirer (August 15, 2014)
Article: Homeowners sue Philly D.A. over seizures of cash, cars, properties Philadelphia Inquirer (August 12, 2014)
Article: Lawsuit: Philly 'ground zero' for forfeiture abuse Philadelphia Daily News (August 12, 2014)
Article: Suit: Philly seizes homes to fund DA's office Associated Press - Philadelphia Bureau (August 12, 2014)

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