PHILADELPHIA—Nearly a decade after a Philadelphia family launched a lawsuit to save their home from the city’s abusive forfeiture program, the case ends with reforms in place to protect property owners, compensation paid out to victims of the city’s forfeiture machine, and a distribution of unclaimed settlement funds to local charities. In the beginning of 2021, the Institute for Justice (IJ) secured final approval of two consent decrees to end a class action lawsuit on behalf of people who had homes, cash and cars wrongfully seized. While one decree established reforms to prevent abuse in the future, the other created a $3 million fund to compensate forfeiture victims.
Nearly 2,400 individuals received awards that averaged $1,476. The Institute for Justice then selected Philadelphia charities that are working in the city’s most affected communities to receive approximately $282,000 in unclaimed funds.
“For years, Philadelphia seized and forfeited millions of dollars from individuals through a cruel and unjust legal process. It took a major federal class action lawsuit to bring the mistreatment to an end,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Frommer. “The funds which could not be given back to individuals will be going to help those communities in Philadelphia most harmed by these practices.”
Chris Sourovelis and his family nearly lost their home to Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine. Like many others, they found themselves trapped in a process where prosecutors ran “hearings” out of a courtroom at City Hall and acted as judges to take homes, cash and cars. The proceeds then went into a fund controlled by police and prosecutors, pulling in up to $6 million a year. The Sourovelis family, along with several other Philadelphians, filed their lawsuit in 2014. After defeating an attempt to dismiss the suit and certifying a class of more than 20,000 property owners, the city agreed to dismantle its forfeiture machine and compensate victims.
The federal consent decrees ending the lawsuit set in place reforms that:
- Greatly restrict when Philadelphia police can seize money and other property for forfeiture;
- Improve the notice which owners receive about the forfeiture process and their rights under it;
- Ensure that judges—not prosecutors—control forfeiture proceedings and monitor forfeiture settlements for fairness;
- Prohibit prosecutors from making owners return to court again and again or risk losing their property forever; and
- Create a prompt, meaningful hearing where property owners can demand the immediate return of their property.
“Philadelphia was one of the worst examples of how civil forfeiture turns American justice on its head to enrich police and prosecutors,” said IJ President and Chief Counsel Scott Bullock. “This was an important case that not only shut down the machine law enforcement created to enrich itself, but also secured compensation for victims. Unfortunately, civil forfeiture destroys lives and even a successful lawsuit can never give the victims full justice.”
The Institute for Justice leads the fight against abusive civil forfeiture practices that take property without charging people with a crime. IJ’s review of state and federal forfeiture law, Policing for Profit, gave Pennsylvania a “D-” over its poor protections for property owners in its most recent addition. While the Philadelphia case is coming to a close, IJ is challenging forfeiture through class action lawsuits in Indiana, Nevada, Texas and at our nation’s airports.
IJ Senior Attorney Rob Frommer is available for interviews. Please contact Andrew Wimer, Media Relations Director, to arrange at (703) 298-5938.