Civil Asset Forfeiture

Institute for Justice Files Suit to Stop Philly's Civil Forfeiture Abuse


"The precinct captain has a fondness for little lion sculptures, so we'll want that, too."
Credit: Institute for Justice

The Institute for Justice (IJ) recently announced a big push to attempt to force reforms to the various broken civil asset forfeiture systems that law enforcement agencies and prosecutors' offices used to strip citizens of their money and property to keep for themselves. At the time, IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock told Reason to expect a "whole string" of new cases coming over the next year.

This week, IJ sets its sights on Philadelphia, filing a class action suit with the assistance of law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg. Here's how IJ describes Philadelphia's terrible system, clearly weighted against its own citizenry:

Property owners who find out that Philadelphia is threatening to take their cash, cars and even homes must go to Courtroom 478 in City Hall. But Courtroom 478 isn't a courtroom at all: there is no judge or jury, just the prosecutors who run the show. Owners who ask if they need a lawyer are frequently told that one isn't necessary, only to then be given a stack of complicated legal documents they must fill out under oath. Time and time again, property owners must return to Courtroom 478—up to ten or more times in some cases— to answer questions and prove their property was never involved in a crime. If they miss a single appearance, they can lose their property forever. ?

Making matters worse, Philadelphia's police and prosecutors get to keep and use everything that the machine snatches up. Philadelphia's population is smaller than Brooklyn, New York's and Los Angeles County's, but Philadelphia brings in twice as much forfeiture revenue as the two—combined. Forfeiture revenue equals almost 20 percent of the District Attorney's Office's annual budget and the city spends nearly 40 percent of those proceeds on salaries, including the salaries of the very police and prosecutors doing the seizing. ?

"Philadelphia's forfeiture scheme is especially outrageous. It allows the District Attorneys to pad their budget with millions of dollars in unaccountable funds by stripping innocent residents of their rights and property," said IJ attorney and lead counsel on the case, Darpana Sheth. "Over a ten-year period police and prosecutors took in over $64 million in forfeiture proceeds—with $25 million going toward their salaries. The city's residents are not ATMs." ?

IJ is starting off the case by representing the family of Christos Sourovelis, who have had their home threatened by authorities because his son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside their house.

Read more about the case here.

UPDATE: Here's the video IJ put together about Philly: