The most terrifying place in Philadelphia is Courtroom 478 in City Hall. This is where property owners enter the city’s civil forfeiture machine, which chews up their rights while churning out revenue for Philadelphia police and prosecutors.
Owners wishing to contest the seizure of their cash, cars and homes must go to Courtroom 478. For years, prosecutors alone—not judges or juries—have run this “courtroom,” often telling property owners they do not need a lawyer before handing them a stack of complicated legal documents to complete.1 Prosecutors have also “relisted” cases, forcing owners to return to Courtroom 478 multiple times. Missing even one court date could mean losing property forever through default.2
When homes have been taken under “seize-and-seal” orders, prosecutors have pressured owners to agree to unreasonable and unconstitutional conditions in order to regain access to their homes pending a final determination in their cases. Conditions have included waiving their constitutional rights in future civil forfeiture actions or even barring loved ones from their homes.3
Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture machine is notable for its scope and efficiency. Up to 80 cases of all types have been listed for “hearing” in Courtroom 478 in a single day.4 The district attorney’s office won over 90 percent of its 8,284 cash-forfeiture cases in 2010.5 Philadelphia homeowners face even worse odds: Owners won in only 30 of the nearly 2,000 real-property cases filed from 2008 to 2012.6
Altogether, civil forfeiture generated more than $69 million in revenue for the district attorney’s office between 2002 and 2013—an annual average of almost $5.8 million.7 The office spent about 40 percent of these funds on salaries, including those of the very prosecutors who have been running Courtroom 478.8 This financial stake, and the conflict of interest it engenders, is the engine of the Philadelphia civil forfeiture machine.
Philadelphia is thus the quintessential example of what happens when state actors face bad incentives and few restrictions, something Chris Sourovelis discovered in March 2014 when his son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs outside the family home.9
Although Sourovelis had committed no crime, he was thrown out of his home and into Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture machine.
To regain access to their home, Sourovelis and his wife agreed, without legal representation, to ban their son from the premises and change the locks, among other things.10 After seven days, the Sourovelises—minus their son—were back in their home, but they still were not in the clear. They had to appear in Courtroom 478 no fewer than nine times.11
In August 2014, Sourovelis filed a class-action lawsuit brought by the Institute for Justice against the city and the district attorney’s office for violating his and others’ constitutional rights. Under pressure from the federal lawsuit and public opinion, the district attorney’s office dropped the forfeiture case against Sourovelis’ home in late 2014.12 In a partial class-wide settlement, the office also agreed, in mid-2015, to stop seizing homes without giving owners warning and a chance to make their case before a judge, unless it could show such actions were necessary to prevent crimes. The office will no longer order homes sealed, absent exigent circumstances, before owners have had their day in court, nor will it demand that family members be banned from the premises.13
These changes should prevent other homeowners from suffering the same ordeal the Sourovelises did. But more must be done to dismantle Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine once and for all, and so the litigation continues. Most significantly, law enforcement in the city still enjoys the financial fruits of forfeiture, and as long as this financial incentive persists, it is doubtful that Philadelphians and their property will be safe from the civil forfeiture machine.
Continue Reading: Sidebar: With Civil Forfeiture, IRS Cleans Out Bank Accounts