Philadelphia Forfeiture Victims Can Continue Lawsuit Against State Court Administrators and Judges

Institute for Justice · March 30, 2017

PHILADELPHIA—Today, in another sweeping victory in the Institute for Justice’s fight against Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine, Judge Eduardo C. Robreno denied Pennsylvania’s First Judicial District’s motion to dismiss the class action challenging its administration of civil forfeiture proceedings. The Institute for Justice and four Philadelphia residents first filed suit in August 2014 to protect property owners throughout the city.

“Today’s decision makes clear in no uncertain terms that Philadelphia’s state court administrators must now defend their inadequate procedures that have systematically trampled on the rights of our clients and the rights of thousands of other property owners,” said IJ Senior Attorney and lead attorney on the case Darpana Sheth.

Judge Robreno squarely rejected the First Judicial District’s argument that IJ’s lawsuit should be dismissed because the District recently changed some of its procedures. Judge Robreno ruled that “this is not like a new case,” finding that IJ’s complaint sufficiently alleged both “that the pre-October 2015 civil forfeiture procedures were unconstitutional” and “that the changes to the procedures have not fixed those deficiencies.”

Judge Robreno further rejected the First Judicial District’s arguments that its procedures are constitutionally adequate, holding once more that “Plaintiffs have the better of [the] argument.”

The First Judicial District and Philadelphia police and prosecutors have long failed to provide property owners with a prompt opportunity to get their property back. Meanwhile, individual property owners have been forced to attend as many as ten or more proceedings, with many losing their property for missing a single one. And for almost a decade, the First Judicial District let the city’s prosecutors run a forfeiture “courtroom,” the infamous Courtroom 478, with no judge or jury.

“Philadelphia tried to seize my home even though I did not do anything wrong, but the court system in Philadelphia did not give me a chance even to see a judge,” said Christos Sourovelis, the lead plaintiff in the case. “I am very happy the case will go on because it means the court administrators are going to have to be accountable for the nightmare they 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 Milad Emam, attorney at the Institute for Justice. “Philadelphia has seized over $64 million from its residents in an 11-year period. The city’s forfeiture machine must be dismantled.”