Innocent Philadelphians are losing their homes to a little known law

Chris Sourovelis is innocent by all accounts and has never had a run-in with the law: his record is clean as a whistle. However this didn’t stop the City of Philadelphia from trying to seize his home.

The Sourovelis family is not the first one to face this bizarre turn of the law. Thousands of other people who haven’t committed a crime in their lives find that their property is considered guilty and now they have to fight to prove their innocence. The strangest part is that the prosecutors they’re fighting against are the ones who can benefit from it. In recent events, the Institute of Justice has filed a major class-action lawsuit in order to put a stop to this large scale, unprecedented abuse of the law.

What is civil forfeiture?

Civil forfeiture is a form of confiscation of assets by the state if those assets were deemed to be used as instrumentalities to a crime. Put simply, if you break the law, for example, if you sell a small amount of marijuana and you are caught, you risk having your house seized if a connection is found between the drugs and the house. Most interestingly, you do not have to be the owner of the assets, nor have to be charged with a crime to have them seized. So if you’re staying at your friends house for the weekend and you’re fined for a crime you committed, if the state finds a link between the crime and the house, they can seize your friend’s house on the basis that it was used to facilitate the crime (as an example “used in the manufacture of drugs”).

This get even weirder when you consider the fact that the state does not sue the owner but the property itself, which leads to surreal case names like One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania or Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. The Real Property and Improvements Known as 2544 N. Colorado St.

This is exactly the case the Sourovelis found themselves in when their son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside his home. Without having a prior criminal record, the court ordered the young man to go to rehab. But the very day Chris was driving his son to rehab, a distressed phone call from his wife informed him that they were being evicted from their home with the property being seized by police. This was of course the process of civil forfeiture at work.

They were barred from entering their own house for over a week. The family got permission to enter only on the condition that they ban their son from visiting, as well as relinquishing some of their constitutional rights. To add insult to the injury, their son had already completed his rehab, in effect ending the punishment met out by the city. The Sourovelis case is not without precedent.

Punished for others’ crimes

In other words, civil forfeiture punishes people for crimes that other people might have committed. Doila Welch is another victim caught in the machine-like forfeiture scheme of the state, risking the loss of her 17 year old home because her husband, unbeknownst to her, was caught dealing small amounts of weed. Another case is that of Norys Hernandez and her sister who co-own a rowhouse. The sister is barred from entering or living in the house because her nephew was arrested for selling drugs in the vicinity of the house. Welch and Hernandez have joined the Sourovelis as plaintiffs in the IJ class action against the Philadelphia forfeiture process.

Little known law turned racket

The DA’s Office of Philadelphia has turned a once little known law into a full-blown extortion scheme. From 2002 to 2012, Philadelphia took in over $64 million, or $6 million per year of forfeiture funds. A report from the Institute of Justice writes that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has seized and forfeited 1,172 real properties, 3,290 vehicles and over $44 million in cash. The forfeiture proceeds make up one-fifth of the DA Office’s entire budget. 40% of those funds or $25 million are used to pay salaries to law enforcement, including the salaries of the prosecutors who have used civil forfeiture against innocent families.

Although civil forfeiture is not new nor limited to Philadelphia, it is here that the problem is most acute. To make a comparison, Kings County, New York, which includes Brooklyn and has a population that is 1.5 larger than Philadelphia has generated $1.2 million from forfeiture in 2010. Los Angeles county has 6 times more people than Philadelphia and has also kept $1.2 million in forfeited assets in the same year.

The DA’s Office has issued a statement in response to the IJ lawsuit, claiming that all civil forfeiture cases are pursued “judiciously”. However it’s a little hard to take that at face value when Philadelphia is the jurisdiction in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with the most cases of civil forfeiture, totaling over 6500 cases being filed in 2011 alone. Allegheny County, the second-largest county in the state has filed only 200 cases from 2008 to 2011.

Between the years of 2009 – 2010, Philadelphia forfeited and seized over 90 real estate properties. As a comparison, Allegheny County did not forfeit a single property. To drive the comparison even further, 66 other counties in Pennsylvania forfeited a combined 56 real properties from 2002 to 2012. Philadelphia? 1,172 real estate properties.

Those who have their homes, cash or cars seized have to go to Courtroom 478. Except that Courtroom 478 is not your typical courtroom: there is no judge nor jury, just a scheduler and the assistant district attorneys who handle up to 80 cases in a single day.

With prosecutors tasked with running the court, it is pretty clear that the DA’s Office holds immense power here. Analyzing over 8000 forfeiture cases filed against cash in 2010, it was found that 83 percent of cases were decided on the first court listing. 96% of the decisions were made in favor of the DA.

You should probably not be surprised to know by now that property owners who find themselves in a civil forfeiture case have fewer rights than those who are actually accused of a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture cases, the government does not have to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the property is connected to a crime. Prosecutors instead must only present a link between the property and the alleged crime for the property owners to prove their innocence. In addition to this, since these cases are in civil court, owners cannot use the services of an attorney.

Prosecutors make it even harder for owners to reclaim their property by relisting civil-forfeiture cases, forcing them to make repeat trips to Courtroom 478. It is not uncommon for people to have visited ten, twenty or even more times before a decision was reached, as was the case of Rochelle Bing, another innocent homeowner who had to appear in the courtroom at least 23 times before she got to keep her home. If the owner misses just one hearing, the government has the power to immediately forfeit the property. The Sourovelis have beaten the road to Courtroom 478 four times already with no end to their troubles. They have yet to see a judge.

A class-action lawsuit filed in federal court by the Institute of Justice is seeking to end the city’s unconstitutional extortionist practices and to force the return of wrongfully forfeited property.

photo credit: Phil Roeder