$3 Million Federal Court Settlement: Philadelphia Agrees to End Civil Forfeiture
by Derek Gilna
A federal civil rights suit alleging massive abuse of Philadelphia’s civil asset forfeiture program was settled in September 2018 for $3 million, which will be distributed to individuals it victimized.
The settlement resolved a 2014 federal class-action court action filed by the Institute for Justice on behalf of Markela and Chris Sourovelis, who lost their home after their son was arrested for selling $40 in illegal drugs outside.
According to Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, “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. No more. Today’s groundbreaking agreement will end years of abuse and create a fund to compensate innocent owners.”
The settlement followed closely in the wake of legislation in Pennsylvania that tightened the requirements for the state’s civil asset forfeiture program, as well as similar legislation passed in almost half of the nation’s states. In July 2018, a federal court judge in New Mexico ruled that Albuquerque’s civil asset forfeiture procedures were unconstitutional.
Critics of the New Mexico program and similar programs, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that civil asset forfeiture programs incentivize police agencies to make seizures of property with little oversight—even if the owner of the asset is not charged with illegal activity. These programs can forfeit to the arresting agencies cash and property that make off-budget contributions to police and prosecuting attorneys operating budgets. According to the Philadelphia lawsuit, the city was seizing 300 to 500 residences a year, and the procedure gave little opportunity for innocent citizens to recover their seized property.
The city required individuals whose property had been seized to attend a hearing in a small room in Philadelphia’s City Hall. The hearing was conducted by a prosecutor rather than a judge. Defendants were responsible for providing their own attorneys, and if they missed a hearing, they could lose their property.
As a result of the class-action settlement, the $3 million fund will be distributed to claimants who can establish that their property was seized without them being convicted of a crime and should receive full reimbursement.
Judges will now preside over forfeiture proceedings, and under the terms of the settlement, codified in two binding consent decrees, Philadelphia city police and district attorney offices are now forbidden to fund their offices with civil asset forfeitures.
According to Chris Sourovelis, “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. No one in Philadelphia should ever have to go through the nightmare my family faced.”
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