Philadelphia, PA – The city that has gained a reputation for the egregious civil asset forfeiture practices committed by its police department, will now be forced to dismantle the program altogether, as a result of a lawsuit filed by a family who had their home seized by police after their son was accused of a minor drug crime.
Residents who have been harmed by the Philadelphia Police department’s civil asset forfeiture practices could also receive part of $3 million in compensation. Markela and Chris Sourovelis initially filed a lawsuit in 2014 after their son was caught trying to sell $40 in heroin on the street.
The parents complied with the judge and took their son to a court-ordered rehabilitation treatment. But when they returned home, they found that police had locked them out of their house.
The Sourovelis family’s home was seized by police even though there was no evidence that the parents had any knowledge of their son’s attempt to sell drugs, and there was no evidence that the parents or any other family members had engaged in any kind of drug-related activity deemed “illegal” by the state.
The story received significant media attention as the country was introduced to the horror many Philadelphia residents face, and the district attorney eventually dropped the case against the family. In a statement from December 2014, Chris Sourovelis said he was relieved by the verdict, but was committed to continuing the fight to ensure that other residents were not subjected to the same nightmare.
"After months of uncertainty, my family can finally rest easy knowing that our home is our home again," Sourovelis said. "I’ve lived in Philadelphia for over 30 years. I never thought it was possible for the police to just show up at my doorstep without notice and take my house when I’ve done nothing wrong. But that’s exactly what happened to me and my family—and we’re not alone. That’s why we’re going to keep fighting for everyone still trapped in Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture nightmare."
Sourovelis worked with the Institute of Justice to file a new lawsuit a class action lawsuit, which alleged that the city was seizing 300 to 500 homes each year, violating residents' constitutional rights and illegally creating a profit incentive because the revenue generated by the program was going straight to local police and district attorneys.
To say that the city has a problem is an understatement. While the city of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, filed 200 petitions for civil asset forfeiture from 2008 to 2011, Philadelphia filed 6,560 petitions—in 2011 alone. A report from the Philadelphia Inquirer also found that the city brought in more than $64 million in seized property from 2004 to 2014, which is almost twice the amount raised by cities like Brooklyn, New York, and Los Angeles, California.
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A 2015 report from the American Civil Liberties Union noted that “an estimated 32 percent of cash forfeitures are not supported by a conviction,” which means that more than $1 million is forfeited every year from innocent residents in Philadelphia:
“Worrying evidence suggests that the profits and sweeping powers offered by civil forfeiture have distorted a tool originally targeted at cartels and drug kingpins. An article in the Philadelphia City Paper in 2012 indicated that Philadelphia prosecutors regularly forfeit sums as small as $100 and that people trying to get their property back sometimes had to attend upwards of ten court dates just to reach a hearing before a judge. Other media accounts chronicled the human toll of civil forfeiture. In one, a Philadelphia grandmother faced losing her home because a grandson sold a small amount of drugs out of it. In another, a Lancaster mother had $300 seized from her purse when her son was arrested on narcotics charges.”
The city of Philadelphia has now agreed to a settlement, which includes the following promises, according to a report from Reason:
- The city will no longer seek property forfeitures for simple drug possession
- The city will stop seizing petty amounts of cash without accompanying arrests or evidence in a criminal case
- The city will put judges in charge of forfeiture hearings and will streamline the hearing process
- The city 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.
While the results of the lawsuit are encouraging, it remains to be seen how the Philadelphia Police department will respond, and if it will lash out at residents for the large decrease in revenue that was being stolen from innocent citizens.
"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," Chris Sourovelis said in response to the outcome of the lawsuit.
The Institute for Justice also released a statement, calling the settlement a “groundbreaking” accomplishment that will have a positive effect for residents for years to come:
"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."