Every ninety minutes, law enforcement officials in Philadelphia confiscate the property of individuals who may not have been charged with or convicted of any criminal activity. After government agents seize private citizens’ money or property, those innocent citizens are forced to navigate a confusing system of legal challenges, in order to retrieve the property they once legally possessed.
The practice, called “civil asset forfeiture,” allows police to seize cash, cars, homes, guns, or other property that may be associated with criminal activity, without first obtaining warrants or indictments.
Many states have laws that allow officers to keep a portion of the assets for their own departments. Additionally, the national government receives a cut of local civil asset forefeiture collections, piping the seized money upward through a program called “Equitable Sharing.”
A September 2014 Washington Post study found that state and local agencies raised 1.7 billion dollars since 2001 through such civil asset forfeiture programs. Nearly three hundred participating agencies seized cash equivalent to over 20% of their annual budgets.
Writing for Pennsylvania Watchdog, Eric Bohem reported that a Philadelphia family, Chris and Amy Sourovelis, lost possession of their home after their son allegedly sold a small amount of heroin to an undercover police officer.
“Officers from the Philadelphia Police Department responded,” Bohem writes, “by raiding the Sourovelis’ north Philadelphia home with guns drawn — one of them pointed at the head of the family dog — and found small amounts of the drug in the 22-year old’s bedroom.”
The Sourvoelises were not aware of their son’s drug addiction and alleged crimes, and were never charged with any crimes themselves. However, Philadelphia police returned to their residence a few weeks after the initial raid, and forced them from their house under civil asset forfeiture rules.
Last year, according to Bohem, the DA’s office received more than six million dollars from such forfeiture proceedings.
Not Worth the Effort
Once the property is seized, the burden of proof is on the original owner to prove that they own it legally, and that it wasn’t involved in any crime. Even worse, owners have to go through civil (not criminal) court proceedings to retrieve wrongly seized property — which means multiple court hearings, hiring lawyers, and no public defenders for those unable to pay.
Although the Philadelphia police department has seized thousands of private homes and vehicles, and $44 million in cash, the average forfeiture is only about $178.
Bohem concludes, “For many who have property seized by police, the expense and risks of trying to get it back are simply not worth it.”
However, while civil asset forfeiture is beginning to receive national attention, the Philadelphia case is significant due to the size and scope of the problem. Philadelphia police conducted more than 6,000 asset seizures. To compare, neighboring Alleghany County only conducted 200 such raids.
A group of Philadelphia homeowners, including the Sourovelis family, have now come together and filed a federal lawsuit to stop what they call “an unconstitutional use of civil asset forfeiture laws.” In September, a motion for injunction was filed on behalf of the homeowners, seeking an immediate stop police from seizing any property, until a judge can fully hear the case.
“Allowing law enforcement to keep the proceeds of forfeited property gives them a perverse financial incentive to use civil forfeiture,” Institute for Justice lawyer Scott Bullock told Bohem.”No one in the U.S. should lose their property without being convicted of, or even charged with, any crime.”
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court’s Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia city officials will respond to the plaintiffs’ allegations in early October.
Dotty Young ([email protected]) writes from Ashland, Ohio.
“Sourvoelis, et al v. City of Philadelphia, 2:14-cv-04687-ER,” United States District Court, http://heartland.org/policy-documents/sourvoelis-et-al-v-city-philadelphia-214-cv-04687-er