What happens in Courtroom 478, located within the bowels of City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Using a legal device called “civil forfeiture,” government prosecutors confiscate property under the guise of “cracking down on crime.”

In a nutshell, civil forfeiture is a legal device that prosecutors use to confiscate property associated (however tenuously) with a crime under the fiction that the property itself is guilty of a crime. Even if the property owners themselves are never accused or convicted of a crime, or have no knowledge of a crime, they’re required to attend a series of hearings to prove their innocence. If the property owners lose, the government gets to keep the property—and the profits.

From the Institute for Justice’s “End Forfeiture” site:

Philadelphia’s automated, machine-like forfeiture scheme is unprecedented in size. From 2002 to 2012, Philadelphia took in over $64 million in forfeiture funds—or almost $6 million per year. In 2011 alone, the city’s prosecutors filed 6,560 forfeiture petitions to take cash, cars, homes and other property. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office used over $25 million of that $64 million to pay salaries, including the salaries of the very prosecutors who brought the forfeiture actions. This is almost twice as much as what all other Pennsylvania counties spent on salaries combined.

This is why the Institute for Justice is helping families in Philadelphia file a class action lawsuit against the city on behalf of all Philadelphians whose property is currently threatened by civil forfeiture. IJ is challenging several aspects of Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture law, including:

  • “Seize and seal” without notice,
  • The requirement that citizens to give up the right to challenge the forfeiture if they want to “unseal” their home,
  • Lack of prompt post-seizure hearings,
  • Policy allowing prosecutors and police to use all of the cash and property seized to pad their budgets, and
  • Lack of judicial oversight

IJ put together a great video explaining the ins and outs of fighting a civil forfeiture claim, and I highly recommend watching it:

The FBI’s website on asset forfeiture explains that “[t]he seizure of property by law enforcement authorities generally is permissible when the property is evidence of a crime or is subject to forfeiture.” What the website doesn’t say, however, is how far police and prosecutors feel justified in going to seize private property in the name of the law/justice/Christmas bonuses. It’s no secret that civil forfeiture is a lucrative racket, if you can pull it off. The overall federal take in forfeiture cases—even after limiting provisions passed via additional legislation—has stretched into the billions of dollars, and states have mimicked Federal laws, sometimes without similar limits.

A 2013 exposé by the New Yorker told the stories of several victims of opportunism in civil forfeiture, but more importantly, emphasized how vulnerable ordinary citizens are when facing property seizure.

“There’s this myth that they’re cracking down on drug cartels and kingpins,” Lee McGrath, of the Institute for Justice, who recently co-wrote a paper on Georgia’s aggressive use of forfeiture, says. “In reality, it’s small amounts, where people aren’t entitled to a public defender, and can’t afford a lawyer, and the only rational response is to walk away from your property, because of the infeasibility of getting your money back.”

The stories of the people featured in the New Yorker piece, and of the plaintiffs in IJ’s case against the City of Philadelphia, are as heartbreaking as they are infuriating. Threatened with homelessness, incarceration on felony charges, and even loss of parental rights, ordinary Americans are being forced to surrender their rights in the hopes that if they do, the authorities will leave them alone.

I doubt that the robber barons of Courtroom 478 counted on a mass class action lawsuit when they first started seizing property at near-random, and I can’t help but wonder how they plan on carrying on when the people of Philadelphia have nothing left to give.

You can read the complaint here.