Critics Point to Attempted Forfeiture as Sign of System’s Failure
Attorneys filed a class action lawsuit in September, 2014, naming the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office as a defendant. The law claims that the DA’s office has abused the civil forfeiture program and is essentially using it as a profit center. The District Attorney’s Office says that the press has singled out a specific situation in an upscale neighborhood and wrongfully implied that it represents the program as a whole.
Christos Sourovelis, the lead plaintiff in the action filed in September, is a homeowner in Somerton. Last March, his son, Yianni, was arrested at their home for allegedly selling heroin. Police acknowledge that they have no evidence that Yianni was selling drugs at or out of the home. Nonetheless, in May, police showed up with an eviction notice, advising Sourovelis and his family that they were seizing the family’s $350,000 home under the city’s civil forfeiture program. Sourovelis was able to return to his home a week later after signing an agreement that his son would not live in the house.
The civil forfeiture laws evolved out of the “war on drugs,” with federal legislators giving U.S. attorneys the legal authority to seize assets ostensibly obtained with drug profits. The intent was to take away the profit motive. Many states, including Pennsylvania, have enacted similar laws, often extending beyond the reach of the federal laws.
Civil rights advocates contend that the Philadelphia D.A.’s office has consistently violated federal law by seizing homes without any notice or opportunity for a hearing. According to a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1993, unless there are “exigent circumstances”, i.e,. a situation where immediate action is necessary, the government is required to provide “notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard before seizing real property subject to civil forfeiture.”
Critics of the civil forfeiture program, particularly in Philadelphia, allege that more than half of the civil forfeitures in Pennsylvania run through that office. They also contend that the Philadelphia D.A.’s office funds approximately 20% of its annual budget through the proceeds of forfeiture sales.
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