After more than four long years of litigation, Philadelphia has shut down its unconstitutional forfeiture machine and instituted sweeping reforms of how it seizes and forfeits property. This victory will bring long-awaited justice to more than 25,000 property owners—and require the city to respect the property rights of every resident in the future.
As regular readers of Liberty & Law will recall, IJ filed a federal class action lawsuit in August 2014 challenging the nation’s largest municipal forfeiture program. Philadelphia had turned civil forfeiture into a machine, taking more than 1,200 homes, 3,500 vehicles, and $50 million in cash from residents—many of whom were never even charged with a crime.
This forfeiture machine was fueled by a perverse financial incentive: Police and prosecutors were allowed to keep and use forfeiture funds as they saw fit. For decades, the district attorney’s office amassed a forfeiture slush fund through a rigged system involving:
- Cookie-cutter legal complaints, which allowed officials to generate as many forfeitures as possible.
- Little notice to individuals about the nature of forfeiture proceedings against them.
- No opportunity for owners to contest the seizure of their property before trial.
- Nearly insurmountable burdens of proof that required owners to prove their innocence.
- “Hearings” run by prosecutors who were paid solely with forfeiture funds.
- A courtroom without any judge—the now infamous Courtroom 478.
The victory comes in the form of two consent decrees that, once approved by the court, will permanently overhaul this unconstitutional system. Here’s how:
First and foremost, the consent decrees will end policing and prosecuting for financial gain. Rather than padding law enforcement budgets, any new forfeiture revenues will be directed back to communities to help with drug prevention and treatment programs. This ensures that Philadelphia can no longer use forfeiture to treat its citizens like ATMs.
Philadelphia had turned civil forfeiture into a machine, taking more than 1,200 homes, 3,500 vehicles, and $50 million in cash from residents—many of whom were never even charged with a crime.
Second, the consent decrees strengthen much-needed protections for property owners. The proposed new procedures will transform the Kafka-esque process described above into one more befitting the birthplace of our Constitution.
Finally, the consent decrees will take all existing forfeiture revenues and establish a $3 million fund to enable innocent property owners to reclaim every dollar seized from them under the city’s unconstitutional scheme.
This case represents not only a sweeping victory for Philadelphians, but also a number of “firsts” for IJ. The case was our first class action lawsuit. It was also the first time we sued judges for being complicit in constitutional violations. Through a “smoking gun” memorandum we obtained in discovery, we showed how state court judges set up Courtroom 478 and other constitutionally deficient procedures. Without suing the state court judges, it would have been difficult to secure comprehensive reform of those courtroom procedures. Lastly, if the consent decrees are approved by the federal court, it will be the first time IJ has obtained a seven-figure monetary award to compensate those who have been wronged.
IJ is using these tactics and other lessons from this case to expand protections for property owners and due process rights across the country. And while we still have more work to do in securing final court approval and ensuring that innocent property owners get compensated, we look forward to using these judgments as a model for reforming other cities and making them forfeit their own forfeiture slush funds.