Federal Judge Certifies Class in Challenge to Philadelphia’s Forfeiture Machine

Institute for Justice · February 24, 2017

PHILADELPHIA— Late yesterday afternoon, the fight to end Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture machine scored another major victory when a federal judge certified a class of property owners challenging the controversial practice of “policing for profit.” Under this practice, Philadelphia police and prosecutors take in millions of dollars each year in forfeiture proceeds, which they use to pay salaries and other expenses.

“The core problem with Philadelphia’s forfeiture program is the direct financial incentive it gives police and prosecutors to seize and forfeit property,” explained IJ Senior Attorney and lead counsel on the case Darpana Sheth. “This practice injects impermissible bias into the forfeiture process, amounting to a conflict of interest that violates the constitutional guarantee of due process.”

Yesterday’s victory means that the four named plaintiffs in the lawsuit are now officially standing up for the tens of thousands of other property owners who were threatened with civil forfeiture under the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act in the last five years. Since August 11, 2012, the district attorney’s office filed over 20,000 civil forfeiture petitions under that law, making it the overwhelmingly single largest source of all civil forfeitures in Philadelphia.

“This ruling is a huge win for all Philadelphians who had their cash, cars, homes and other property taken illegally by police and prosecutors,” said Christos Sourovelis, the lead plaintiff.

Specifically, the court found that the plaintiffs’ request for a ruling declaring policing for profit unconstitutional and prohibiting the practice in the future are “classic examples of the types of claims that should be certified” under the federal rules. U.S. District Court Judge Robreno further clarified that his ruling would not bar property owners from pursuing any claims they have for money damages beyond the class action.

“Today’s decision means that those who were kicked out of their homes, permanently lost their property through forfeiture, or otherwise suffered injuries are free to sue the city and the district attorney’s office for damages,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer.

Read the entire opinion here.

Each year, Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture program takes in almost $6 million from citizens, whether or not they have been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. Under Pennsylvania law, the city’s police and prosecutors get to keep all of those forfeiture proceeds for their own use. As a result, Philadelphia’s forfeiture revenue equals almost 20 percent of the annual budget for the district attorney’s office, with nearly 40 percent of those proceeds being spent on salaries—including the salaries of the very police and prosecutors doing the seizing.

“When Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine is completely dismantled, this will send a signal to cities across the country that they cannot use their residents as ATMs by seizing as much property as possible,” said Sheth.

The Institute for Justice filed the lawsuit challenging the city’s civil forfeiture program in August 2014. In September 2016, the court severed the plaintiffs’ claim about law enforcement’s improper incentives for forfeitures from the rest of their claims related to the constitutionality of courtroom procedures used in forfeiture cases. The defendants in those claims also include administrators of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. The court scheduled a hearing on these other claims for March 15.

The Institute for Justice is leading the fight against civil forfeiture nationwide. To learn more, visit endforfeiture.com.