Constitutional Law

Civil rights group sues Philly DA, says illegal civil forfeiture 'machine' helps fund office

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In a class action lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Philadelphia, a civil rights group accuses city officials, including the district attorney, of operating an illegal civil forfeiture “machine” that confiscates nearly $6 million annually in cash, cars, homes and other property without proof of criminal conduct.

Contending that the forfeitures violate the constitutional due process rights of those from whom property is seized because they have no meaningful opportunity to be heard beforehand, the complaint (PDF) filed by the Institute for Justice and a local lawyer seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

The homeowner suit, which names the city, its mayor, the DA, his office and the city’s police commissioner as defendants, also argues that police and prosecutors have a conflict of interest when they seize property linked to crimes, because their offices profit from doing so.

“While Pennsylvania law authorizes civil forfeiture, the Philadelphia DA’s office has turned this tool into a veritable machine, devouring personal property from thousands of residents, many of whom are innocent, and converting that property into a $5.8 million stream of revenue,” the complaint states. “Using a rigged system of copied ‘form’ legal documents and endless proceedings in a court run by the prosecutors themselves, Philadelphia’s ‘robo-forfeiture’ program stripped thousands of city residents of over 1,000 residences, 3,200 vehicles and $44 million in cash over an 11-year period, ultimately raking in more than $64 million in revenue outside its appropriated budget.”

One of the plaintiffs is Christos Sourovelis, who is fighting to keep his home after a son was arrested outside for allegedly trying to make a $40 drug sale. The son is in rehab, as part of a diversionary program for first offenders, and there is no proof his parents knew of his claimed activities, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

In a written statement Tuesday responding to the lawsuit, the DA’s office said it uses civil forfeiture “judiciously” concerning properties “rife with drug use, drug dealing, and violence,” the newspaper reports.

Hat tip: Associated Press.

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