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Philadelphia Will Dismantle Its Asset Forfeiture Program and Pay $3 Million to Victims

A legal settlement guarantees reforms to what was once one of America's most egregious asset forfeiture programs.

Institute for JusticeInstitute for JusticeFour years after Philadelphia police seized the home of Markela and Chris Sourovelis for a minor drug crime committed by their son, the city has agreed to almost completely dismantle its controversial civil asset forfeiture program and pay $3 million to its victims.

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.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property—cash, cars, and even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not charged with a crime.

Law enforcement groups say such laws are a vital tool because they let them disrupt organized crime by cutting off the flow of illicit proceeds. Civil liberties groups reply that the practice has far too little due process for innocent property owners and far too many perverse profit incentives for the police. Those incentives often lead law enforcement to target everyday people rather than cartel bosses.

As I wrote in 2014, reporting on the daily happenings inside Philadelphia's asset forfeiture court:

Philadelphia hauled in $64 million in seized property over the last decade, according to an investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer. That's more than Brooklyn and Los Angeles combined. Not only does Philadelphia take in more than other cities, but the average seizure is significantly more petty. A City Paper review of 100 cases from 2011 and 2012 found the median amount of cash seized by the District Attorney was only $178.

A 2015 report by the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found that almost a third of cash forfeiture cases in Philadelphia involved money owned by people who had not been found guilty of a crime. In one of the worst examples, police seized $2,000 from an 87-year-old pensioner after finding two joints (her husband, a retired dock worker, smoked marijuana to relieve his chronic arthritis) in their apartment.

Residents caught in the asset forfeiture machine had to repeatedly appear for hearings in Room 478, a small "courtroom" in the upper floors of Philadelphia City Hall. The hearings were run by prosecutors. No judge was present, and defendants were not afforded court-appointed lawyers. If a defendant missed a hearing, their property could be summarily taken.

Philadelphia dropped its forfeiture case against the Sourevelises after their plight drew national media attention, but last year a federal judge allowed the Institute for Justice's suit to proceed as a class action. The city also put stricter rules into place for when houses could be seized and voluntarily stopped using forfeiture funds to pay the salary of police and prosecutors.

Under the terms of the settlement, codified in two binding consent decrees, Philadelphia will no longer seek property forfeitures for simple drug possession and will stop seizing petty amounts of cash without accompanying arrests or evidence in a criminal case. It will also put judges in charge of forfeiture hearings, will streamline the hearing process, and will ban the Philadelphia district attorney and Philadelphia Police Department from using forfeiture revenue to fund their payroll.

The city will disburse the $3 million settlement fund to qualifying members of the class action based on the circumstances of their case. A Philadelphia resident whose property was forfeited but was never convicted of a related crime, for example, will receive 100 percent of the value of the property.

Last June, the Pennsylvania legislature passed modest reforms of state asset forfeiture laws. The reforms increased the reporting requirements for asset forfeiture, raised the burden of proof necessary to seize property, and codified Philadelphia's new procedures for seizing homes into law. More than half of all U.S. states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform in recent years, and in July a federal judge declared Albuquerque's asset forfeiture program unconstitutional.

"I'm glad that there is finally a measure of justice for people like me who did nothing wrong but still found themselves fighting to keep what was rightly theirs," Chris Sourovelis said in a press release. "No one in Philadelphia should ever have to go through the nightmare my family faced."

Photo Credit: Institute for Justice

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  • sarcasmic||

    One good thing about the state I live in is that all fines and stolen loot go into the general fund. Of course that still allows for 'equitable sharing' which is why the local cops routinely team up with the feds when there is a drug bust. At least they have to go through some trouble if they're going to police for profit.

  • albo||

    Plus we're the only state (for now) that doesn't allow local cops to use radar, so cash-grabbing speed traps aren't a thing we have to worry about.

  • sarcasmic||

    Er, what? We in the same state? I see cops using radar all the time.

  • operagost||

    Not in Pennsylvania. That's why you see cops sitting in medians instead. They're looking for expired inspection stickers. Still better than radar, since you can only fine so much for the inspection.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    They SAY that it's going into the general fund, but I'll wager that if you look closely, that it doesn't really. My state says that it goes into the general fund or education or some such bullshit, but it turns out that the cops get it all anyway.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    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.

    The obvious compromise should be that seized funds are untouchable by the state in any fashion. Even if the money just goes into an evidence room never to be touched again. Or, in the case of real property, if it is donated to a charity or some other recipient that does not directly benefit the state. Until then, there will ALWAYS be a conflict of interest and the system will ALWAYS be corrupt.

    I truly do not understand the argument by proponents of these forfeiture laws who don't agree with the above. Even if you're a drug czar, you should at least agree that using the money is a breeding ground for corruption. Can someone go ask a conservative why they think the state should use seized money? I'd love to know.

  • SRoach||

    The problem with that is,...
    Imagine the DA, holding an oversized check, which is being donated to the United Way before an assembled press.
    Or, imagine that same DA, standing in front of a new health clinic, built in a residential neighborhood, holding a comically outsized pair of scissors in a ribbon cutting ceremony, again before the same assembled press.
    Both these events occur in the run-up to election day.
    I think you can see that indirect profits can be as devastating as direct profits.

    Burn the money, it's inflated anyway. Auction the physical property, both real and portable, and burn the proceeds, it's inflated anyway.
    Or better yet, dispose of this centuries old affront to the Eighth Amendment protections.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    Yes, you're right. Some other method of distributing (real) property must be worked out then. The auction thing could work, but then you could get those who benefit from the distribution of property providing influence.

    But these details can't even be hashed out as long as people continue to insist that not only should forfeiture be a thing, but also that the state should profit from it. People who don't even work for the state and have no vested interest believe that the government should keep the money. And that boggles my mind.

  • RevengencerAlf||

    Asset forfeiture should never occur prior to a conviction. It's as simple as that. Maybe you can make a special exception for cases that preclude a conviction like someone's who's a fugitive or died before conviction but even in those cases, the safeguards would need to be numerous.

    Regardless of when you allow it though, any money and assets seize should be required to go into a blind fund with no control from the DA or law enforcement and for which outputs cannot ever be correlated with inputs.

  • CE||

    Just don't allow seizures.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    No. Kill the whole idea of asset forfeiture before a conviction. These laws are prime examples of how the Drug War erodes basic tenets of Elgish Common LAw. We 'know' certain people are bad, but convicting them if they are granted all the legal rights of the accused is a lot of trouble, so we cut corners or change the law so we can 'get' them.

    And low and behold, this places a lot of people in the toils of the State that the State would otherwise leave be.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "People who don't even work for the state and have no vested interest believe that the government should keep the money. And that boggles my mind."

    Democrat: Because cops = UNIONS

    Republican: Because cops = HEROES

  • Ben_||

    No, just stop stealing from people.

    If there's a guilty verdict for a crime, asset forfeiture can be part of the sentence. Otherwise, hands off.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    This. It's not as if the State wasn't going to waste the money anyway.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    I believe I used the word "compromise". And with that, I meant a first step until asset forfeiture without due process can be repealed. Once you take the financial incentive away, the steadfast support for asset forfeiture will also diminish.

  • mpercy||

    All states have a "victims compensation fund".

    A first-level compromise would be all forfeitures go there. Definitely not to cops or DAs or even the general fund. No grandstanding of DA in front of a charity with a giant check, either (tip to SRoach).

    Getting rid of the abomination that is civil forfeiture is a must, but in the meantime we could at least remove the perverse incentives.

  • Cy||

    There should be a 3 strike process for public officials who blatantly and willfully abuse people's rights and the third strike should be a lifetime in prison.

  • croaker||

    Second strike: Life in prison.

    Third strike: Woodchipper.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "People who don't even work for the state and have no vested interest believe that the government should keep the money. And that boggles my mind."

    Democrat: Because cops = UNIONS

    Republican: Because cops = HEROES

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Wrong spot.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The third strike SHOULD be throwing off of a very high building. I'll compromise on life in prison.

  • CE||

    One strike -- 10 years in the federal lockup.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Don't worry, everyone. Filthadickia will find another way to be assholes soon enough. Like matter itself, Philadepthsia's assholery can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed in form.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    Yeah, blame the victims. Most true Philadelphians are not happy with their corrupt government. People on the outskirts of Philadelphia, like in the Northeast and Southwest are among the main drivers of policy unfortunately. But that's not Philadelphia. I mean, geographically it's Philadelphia because the city limits go out much further than they should. But that shit's not Philadelphia to any Philadelphian.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Clearly, the masses are not not happy enough to vote for anything other than the status quo.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    When was the last time that there was an opportunity to vote for something other than the status quo? Probably 50+ years ago.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    November 8, 2016. And BOY is the status quo mad about the results!

    Not that Trump is a LOT different. But different enough to give the panjandrums the whim-whams, contemplating what might happen if the Unwashed took this any further and wondering queasily what it would be like to have to WORK for a living.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    This makes no sense. Trump has been a bigger supporter of asset forfeiture than Clinton.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It wasn't the city government who booed Santa.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    Santa's a little bitch.

  • albo||

    Philly's issue is that they always want more money for BS programs and the legislature won't give widened taxing authority, so they are constantly looking for other ways to grab cash.

  • AZ Gunowner||

    The appropriate solution to this problem would have involved .308's, rope, and a tree.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Ferrari 308s?

  • Longtobefree||

    That was planned, but it was confiscated - - - - - - -

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Ferrari 308s are especially helpful for solving cases in Hawaii.

  • Duke of url||

    As long as tax payers have to find the settlement, and the thieves don't have to return the ill gotten assets, there is no justice.

  • CE||

    You left out the part about the thieves going to jail.

  • D-Pizzle||

    It seems to me, based on my back-of-the-napkin calculations, that the settlement fund is way too small to come anywhere close to indemnifying those who were wronged.

  • CE||

    Yeah, I thought the 3M was just for the one house.

  • ||

    Can someone actually show me, mathematically or otherwise, how and why someone that has a home from drugs is doing MORE to the drug community than anything else.

    For example, in the TV series, "Breaking Bad" one of the characters was a drug king pin, whom had a Fried Chicken Franchise. In the middle of the series a person working for a federal agency was shot. Due to this person's involvement in the drug trade, not only was the cop whom was shot able to walk again, he was able to return to work and convict other drug felons.

    ?

  • CE||

    NO SPOILERS!

  • FreeRadical||

    In these kinds of stories I always hope in vain for a mention of how fundamentally fucked up the very idea of AF is. It is utterly illogical and practically supernatural or mystical in nature. This is aside from the obvious violation of the 8th Amendment.

    In these proceedings, the property or cash is itself charged with a crime. How can you charge a non-sentient object with a crime? It's absurd at its core. Its origins go way back into the mists of time in England. It's an interesting story.

    That's how these assholes claim it doesn't violate the 8th. The owners aren't charged with any crimes, so how could their rights be violated? If it wasn't for the fact that the government uses AF to enrich itself and therefore perpetuates it, modern people would look back and laugh at how primitive and mystical the laws were in medieval England.

  • Longtobefree||

    Well, guns cause murder; same theory.
    Just like cars cause drunk driving.

  • FreeRadical||

    Well, at least they have yet started charging the guns themselves with actual crimes and giving them court dates. Come to think about it, I'm shocked they aren't already doing that.

  • FreeRadical||

    Silly me. As soon as I wrote this I realized of course they're doing this already. If any property is "involved" in a crime, it has mens rea and therefore, throw the book at it!

  • Doug Heffernan||

    Fantastic! Many thanks to The Institute for Justice! They are the only legal group that takes these cases on. And they've continually had a huge effect, especially in this case!

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    The ACLU has taken on more asset forfeiture cases than the institute for justice. But we're supposed to hate them.

  • FreeRadical||

    It's a love-hate relationship.

  • Sevo||

    "The ACLU has taken on more asset forfeiture cases than the institute for justice."

    Have they won any?

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    All the time. For example. And the ACLU-PA gives a shout out to this case and their parallel efforts at ending forfeiture in PA.

  • tpaine||

    I want a second this emotion. Although I am an agnostic, I'm sure that the institute for justice is doing God's work. Bless them all.
    those that can should help the institute for justice continue to make the Domino's tumble

  • Jerryskids||

    Philadelphia's gonna have to seize a lot of cars to come up with the 3 mil.

  • operagost||

    That's a lot of soda tax.

  • Longtobefree||

    Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property—cash, cars, and even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not charged with a crime.

    It is also unquestionably unconstitutional. Where are the feds tasked with protecting our constitutional rights?
    Oh, right, at the head of the line where the goodies are passed out.

    Seriously, I cannot find a court ruling that forfeiture is constitutional, absent an actual court conviction. I found one, and only one, which involved forfeiture AFTER a conviction. To me that is a fine, not a forfeiture.

  • Ablutomania||

    > The lawsuit alleged that the city was seizing 300 to 500 homes a year
    > Philadelphia hauled in $64 million in seized property over the last decade
    > median amount of cash seized by the District Attorney was only $178.
    .
    Well, that's egregious. The settlement should ...
    .
    > A Philadelphia resident whose property was forfeited but was never convicted of a related crime, for example, will receive 100 percent of the value of the property.
    .
    > The city will disburse the $3 million
    .
    oh. that's cute.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Someone should perform a 'citizen's forfeiture action' on the Mayor's home and move in. Explaining that they suspected the mayor of criminal corruption and seized the home based on that suspicion. The locks would be immediately changed of course. The fall back on squatter's rights as necessary.

  • BBerry12||

    $64 million in seizures, $3 million for compensation.
    Everybody get in line for your share of peanuts.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Civil asset forfeiture reform?
    But how will government employees be able to afford their third Mercedes Benz?

  • majil||

    Cheer when cops are shot in the face

  • scJazz||

    I was wondering how long it would take for some skull-crushingly stupid fool to advocate violence. You win! Here is your sign!

  • Tionico||

    About time someone's wings got clipped on this asset forfeiture travesty.

    The basis of the entire scam is that inanimate insensate objects are "charged" with "crimes", and since those pieces of paper, piles of sticks and/or metal cannot hire an attorney to defend themselves, they get stolen by da gummit.

    Our Constitutoin provides that we are to remain secure in our "persons, houses, papers effects", and that none of those items can have government clamps put upon them without die process.. warrant sworn upon evidence establishing probable cause, then arrest, fair t\rial INCLUDING the ability to examine the state's witnesses, present one's own, etc. HOW can a pile of Dead Benjamins do any of that? Simple.... cannot. Those bills are the property of someone... and gummit cannot seize them without due process, as basically described above. Until Ferraris can cross examine stat's witnesses and declare where this one was at such and such a time, they cannot be charged with a crime.

    How STUPID do these louts think we are?

    May this pox on Philly spread throughout the land. Better yet, some congresscritters with some stones need to stand up and end this insanity.

  • Hank Phillips||

    IJ rocks... and is probably saving These States from the next Great Depression as a cherry on top.

  • loki||

    Well... it's a start. Only $61 million in comp to go.

  • Sevo||

    IJ ROCKS!

  • jcwconsult||

    This is a great win for justice. Dismantling most of the governmental larceny program of civil forfeiture will make Philadelphia a safer and more moral community with less risk the government will rob your property unfairly.

    It would be really great news if Philadelphia would dismantle the for-profit larceny of red light cameras where the lights are deliberately left mis-engineered for more tickets and more profits targeting mostly safe drivers for just profits. This is no different morally than the larceny of former civil forfeiture techniques.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    And thanks to you, James, for the work the NMA does. Anybody reading this who hasn't visited the NMA's site definitely should. I would argue that the government's...um...shenanigans on the roadways are ultimately responsible for a majority of infringements on freedom that we libertarians complain about -- and ending these policies would be a MAJOR victory for liberty.

  • jcwconsult||

    Thanks, JunkSciencelsJunk
    You are correct that deliberate malfeasance in traffic safety engineering with under-posted speed limits and deliberately mis-engineered traffic lights cause the majority of citizen-police contacts. The great majority of those contacts are for-profit enforcement rackets that target mostly safe drivers for the "dastardly crime of actually driving safely for the conditions". NO ONE should tolerate these for-profit rackets. They CAN be ended if enough citizens speak out strongly and frequently enough.

    The NMA is a small grassroots group of informed people. If we had the 4 or 5 million membership of the NRA, virtually all of these for-profit enforcement rackets aimed at mostly safe drivers would be ended.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Duelles||

    The more government agencies without the people's oversight the more shit comes down on the people. Our legislators suck at their jobs of writing laws and ensuring they are properly carries out, rather allowing administrators to pawn the job off on godless agencies.

  • Duelles||

    The more government agencies without the people's oversight the more shit comes down on the people. Our legislators suck at their jobs of writing laws and ensuring they are properly carries out, rather allowing administrators to pawn the job off on godless agencies.

  • CE||

    Good news I suppose, but when do the criminals who seized people's property get arraigned in court for violating the civil rights of the people they were supposed to be protecting?

    And even guilty people shouldn't lose a house or a car for committing a crime. The punishments should be the same for everyone, and only handed down after a fair, speedy, public trial. Why doesn't Trump sic the Justice Dept on the Philly police?

  • Rynosaur||

    A person should only forfeit property if they are convicted and the property can be proven to have directly assisted in the crime. The property should then either be destroyed or become state assets not accessible by law enforcement or DAs.

  • Septic Service Skiatook||

    How can you charge a non-sentient object with a crime? It's absurd at its core. Its origins go way back into the mists of time in England???

  • markm23||

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