For six straight years, law enforcement in Philadelphia acted as a corrupt ring of thieving thugs, shaking down more than 30,000 residents. Between 2012 and 2018, tens of thousands of innocent citizens were robbed by cops using civil asset forfeiture. According to a scathing report released by the Institute for Justice this month — which interviewed a portion of the victims — the overwhelming majority of these folks, 75%, were never convicted of a crime, and most of them were from low-income minority areas.
According to the survey, police would pick the low hanging fruit most of the time as these folks had a much harder time fighting to get their property back. Because of the way Civil Asset Forfeiture is designed, it puts the person’s property on trial and not the actual person, making it much harder for those without legal resources to get back their property — even when they aren’t convicted of a crime.
IJ reports that two-thirds of the victims who responded to the survey were Black, 63% earned less than $50,000 annually and 18% were unemployed. Instead of targeting actual criminals, police targeted low hanging fruit who couldn’t fight back and who suffered the most from this state-sanctioned theft.
Most of the time, cash was the item cops sought out with the median seizure amount around $600. However, cops had no problem stooping even lower and, according to the report, had been recorded stealing as little as $25 in cash, a cologne gift set, and even someone’s crutches.
In their report, IJ found that just 1 in 4 of the theft victims were ever found guilty of wrongdoing, yet nearly 70% of those people were never able to get back their property.
Even when receipts were given for the seized property, often times, police would lie about the amount.
Nassir Geiger, was one of these innocent folks who watched police rob him despite committing no crime. When police confiscated his $580 in cash and his car — for absolutely no reason — they gave him a receipt for $465, and left his car completely off the record.
Other folks saw their entire homes stolen out from underneath them, which was the case with Markela and Chris Sourovelis, that led to a class action lawsuit in which 30,000 victims had the opportunity to get their money back.
As TFTP reported at the time, when the Sourovelis’ son was caught selling $40 worth of heroin on the street, their lives turned into a nightmare.
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.
According to that lawsuit, law enforcement was using civil asset forfeiture to seize anywhere between 300 to 500 homes every year.
As a result of Sourovelis’ lawsuit, the city agreed to ban the use of civil asset forfeiture and set up a $3 million fund to pay back all the victims who were robbed by cops.
Until this practice was brought to an end in 2018, thousands of innocent residents were robbed every year and it hit the disadvantaged the hardest. Unfortunately, Philadelphia is an exception to the rule and civil asset forfeiture is still a major problem in cities across the country.
Just last month, TFTP reported on the case out of California in which the FBI raided dozens of safety deposit boxes, with no warrant, and seized the life savings of innocent people, claiming their money smelled like drugs. As the Institute for Justice points out in their report:
These elements of civil forfeiture are not unique to Philadelphia. Indeed, most state and federal civil forfeiture laws are similar to the Pennsylvania laws that made Philadelphia’s abuse possible. The victims’ experiences chronicled here therefore provide a cautionary tale for forfeiture programs nationwide. To protect people from losing property unjustly, states and the federal government must end civil forfeiture and the financial incentive that fuels it.