Three Philadelphia homeowners have sued the city, which targeted their homes for civil forfeiture after their relatives were picked up on minor drug charges.
Law enforcement has seized $64 million in property between 2002 and 2012 from thousands of residents – many of whom were never charged with any crimes – in the most aggressive forfeiture unit in the nation.
The city’s revenue generated from seized property dwarfs amounts from similar programs in other cities, reported Forbes.
Philadelphia collects nearly $6 million a year from forfeiture, while Kings County, New York, generated $1.2 million in 2010 and Los Angeles County grabbed $1.2 million in property that same year – although each municipality has far more people.
The city applies about 40 percent of the seized property to law enforcement payroll, including salaries for prosecutors who run the civil forfeiture program.
Chris and Markelos Sourovelis were evicted from their home for more than a week in March after their son was caught selling $40 in heroin outside, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The couple was allowed to return if they banned their son – who by then had already completed court-ordered drug rehabilitation – from their home.
They joined a federal lawsuit filed last month by the libertarian Institute for Justice, which alleges the city’s Public Nuisance Task Force makes millions of dollars each year by trapping homeowners in a Kafkaesque system until they walk away from their property or make procedural mistakes that cause them to lose their homes.
The Sourovelis and the other two plaintiffs are seeking a mere $6 in damages each, but they asked a federal judge to shut down the civil forfeiture program on constitutional grounds.
A spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams defended the program, saying it targeted homes that were often “rife with drug use, drug dealing and violence.”
But that doesn’t describe the circumstances that could cause Doila Welch – another plaintiff – to lose her home.
Welch was targeted for civil forfeiture of her home of 17 years after her estranged husband was arrested for dealing small amounts of marijuana, although she knew nothing about his activities.
The third plaintiff, Norys Hernandez, could lose the home she co-owns with her sister to the city after her nephew was arrested for selling drugs outside.
Neither Hernandez nor her sister was charged with any crime.
Philadelphia pursues real estate far more aggressively than any other city in Pennsylvania, where lawmakers approved civil forfeiture in 1988 and allowed law enforcement authorities to funnel the money back to themselves.
The process goes through civil courts, not criminal, so government lawyers must prove only that a property – and not its owner – was “more likely than not” involved in the commission of a crime.
Prosecutors may also target properties suspected as criminal hotspots even if no one associated with the real estate is ever charged with a crime.
Judges may approve civil forfeitures before criminal prosecutions are completed, so some defendants can lose their property and then later be acquitted by a jury.
What we have is a law that was intended to go after drug kingpins and take away the tools of the trade, and instead we see it used against innocent folks, most of modest means,” said Louis Rulli, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor. “I don’t think that sits well with the American public.”
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