Philadelphia has had atrocious civil asset forfeiture laws since 2002, which has led to legalized theft of belongings to 23,000 citizens.

That practice has undergone a makeover after the city settled a lawsuit and pay victims $3 million. The case involved a family that lost their home due to “a minor drug crime committed by their son.”

Civil asset forfeiture is “a process by which the government can take and sell your property without ever convicting, or even charging, you with a crime.” The procedures are civil, which means defendants do not receive the same protections given to criminal defendants.

It’s one of the few issues that unite the left and the right. It makes me feel happy that Philadelphia will finally let go of this dumb program.

Philadelphia Family’s Case

Four years ago, federal agents visited Christos and Markela Sourovelis after their son tried to sell $40 worth of drugs to a cop. Then local officials notified the family they wanted to seize their home due to the drug crime.

No one charged the parents. No one convicted the parents. $40 worth of drugs. From NBC10:

NBC10 first met Christos and Markela Sourovelis in 2014 when they nearly lost their home because of their son’s mistake. The couple was sitting in their Northeast Philadelphia house when federal officials came pounding on the front door. At the time, Christos Sourovelis had no idea his son had a drug problem and was wanted by the police.

But because his adult son lived at home, officials seized the property as part of their ongoing investigation.

“It was clear they were going for the houses,” Christos Sourovelis said of law enforcement officials. “You sell the house, you make $300,000 and you move on to the next one.”

After a four year battle, it has ended. From Reason:

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, announced today that the city had agreed to a settlement in a federal civil rights class-action lawsuit challenging its forfeiture program.

“For too long, Philadelphia treated its citizens like ATMs, ensnaring thousands of people in a system designed to strip people of their property and their rights,” Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at the institute, said in a press release. “No more. Today’s groundbreaking agreement will end years of abuse and create a fund to compensate innocent owners.”

The Institute for Justice filed the suit in 2014 on behalf of the Sourovelises, a couple whose house was seized without warning after their son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside. The same day the Sourovelises dropped their son off for court-ordered rehab treatment, they returned to find police had locked them out of their own home, even though there was no evidence they were aware of the drug activity.

The lawsuit alleged that the city was seizing 300 to 500 homes a year, violating residents’ constitutional rights and creating an illegal profit incentive, since forfeiture revenue directly funds police and district attorney budgets.

Philadelphia’s History With Civil Asset Forfeiture

So many bad things happened in Courtroom 478, which is where the Sourovelis family spent most of their time during the last four years. NBC10 continued:

There, dozens of people would shuffle in and out on a daily basis, many without lawyers or legal representation of any kind. Prosecutors would give these residents forms to fill out and frequently recommended not fighting against forfeiture, Sheth said.

“Without having to prove a crime, all those standards and protections that apply in criminal proceedings do not apply in civil forfeiture,” Sheth said. “The presumption of innocence is turned completely upside down.”

Inside courtroom 478, families cried and signed their homes away, Christos Sourovelis said. The same would have happened to him until he met Sheth and joined a class action lawsuit. Eventually, the Sourovelis family regained ownership of their home and their son went to rehab.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out that the DA’s office ran that courtroom “without the supervision of judge or jury.” Sheth said that the city “seized more than 1,200 homes, more than 3,500 cars plus and more than $50 million in cash.”

Changes to the System

From The Wall Street Journal:

Tuesday’s first consent decree sets strict new limits for when Philadelphia law enforcement can engage in forfeiture. Authorities can no longer use it to seize property in simple drug possession cases. The settlement also seeks to cut down on lunch-money-sized confiscations, given that in some cases the cops took as little as $9. From now on cops can take less than $1,000 only if they also arrest someone or collect other evidence for a criminal case. In no cases can the district attorney bring a forfeiture complaint for less than $250.

Tuesday’s second consent decree targets this profit incentive, barring the use of forfeiture money for salaries or other law-enforcement expenses. Almost all proceeds will now go to drug treatment and crime prevention. Philadelphia has also agreed to establish a $3 million fund to compensate the victims of past asset-forfeiture abuses. All residents whose property was seized will get something, and those who were never convicted can regain up to 100% of the value of their lost property.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s civil asset forfeiture law allows law enforcement to take “property they believe may be connected to a crime-even if they can’t charge or convict its owner.”

Not counting Philadelphia, the other 66 counties have received $102.3 million due to forfeiture.

The state made a few changes in 2017. From Penn Live:

Gov. Tom Wolf signed a measure on Thursday that reforms the process that law enforcement follows to take possession of the property of individuals suspected of a crime.

In a statement about his decision to enact Act 13, Wolf indicated that while he wished it would have expanded the role of a criminal conviction in asset forfeiture, “in a divided government, we must recognize the value of bipartisan progress” and continue to push for greater reform.

The new law addresses several key areas, including:

  • Higher burdens of proof imposed on the Commonwealth;
  • Protection for third-party owners by placing an additional burden of proof on the Commonwealth;
  • Improved transparency in auditing and reporting;
  • Specific and additional protection in real property cases by prohibiting the pre-forfeiture seizure of real property without a hearing.
  • Additional protections for property owners such as returning property to the forfeiture proceeding if there is undue hardship, and for anyone acquitted of a related crime.

There’s still a lot more to do, but what Philadelphia has done is a major step and hopefully Pennsylvania will join the other fourteen states that have taken steps to outlaw civil asset forfeiture without a criminal conviction.