Judge Denies Motion to Dismiss Philadelphia Forfeiture Lawsuit

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · May 13, 2015

Philadelphia—In an important first step to protecting property rights in Philadelphia, late yesterday a federal judge denied the city’s and the District Attorney’s motion to dismiss the class-action lawsuit challenging its civil forfeiture laws.

The ruling by Judge Eduardo C. Robreno of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is the first ruling in the landmark class action filed in August 2014 by property owners and the Institute for Justice. IJ seeks to represent all property owners in Philadelphia who may be victims of its civil forfeiture machine.

“This ruling requires Philadelphia and its chief law enforcement officers to defend how they have systematically trampled on the rights of our clients and the rights of thousands of other property owners through its aggressive use of forfeiture,” said IJ Attorney and lead attorney on the case Darpana Sheth.

Law enforcement agencies have been seizing cash, cars and even homes without charging anyone with any crime. In order to get their property back, property owners must go to Courtroom 478 in City Hall, where they face endless legal proceedings without being able to see a judge. The city seizes and forfeits almost $6 million each year from its citizens.

Judge Robreno rejected the city’s argument that the lawsuit should be dismissed because it recently changed one of its most egregious practices of forcibly evicting people from their homes without providing any notice or a hearing. Judge Robreno noted that any policy change could be revoked easily, “rendering this policy no more than a parchment barrier.”

The court further rejected efforts by the city and the D.A. to “shift responsibility for the execution of its policies and practices onto the shoulders of state judicial officials and administrators.” “The funding laments laced through Assistant D.A. [Beth] Grossman’s declaration—that because of such constraints, ‘prosecutors in Courtroom 478 have been forced to… assume roles traditionally held by court personnel’—essentially admit to the due process infirmities that may exist in the proceedings they administer.”

“The city tried to seize my home even though I did not do anything wrong,” said Christos Sourovelis, the lead plaintiff in the case. “I am very happy the case will go on because it means the city is going to have to be accountable for the nightmare it put my family and others through.”

“Civil forfeiture laws are draconian and outrageous in many places in the country, but Philadelphia is in a league of its own in how it treats property owners,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, who leads the Institute’s forfeiture initiative. “Philadelphia has seized over $64 million from its residents in an 11-year period. The city’s forfeiture machine must be dismantled.”

IJ is representing Christos Sourovelis, Doila Welch, Norys Hernandez and Nassir Geiger. Defendants in this case are the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and District Attorney Seth Williams.

The lawsuit has received significant attention from the press, including Last Week Tonight with John OliverCNN and Slate.