Real Estate & Property Law

Innocent people face loss of their homes because of drug charges against family members

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As many as 100 or more Philadelphia homeowners are losing their homes to civil forfeiture each year, and some of them may be innocent of any crime.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office recovers more than $1 million a year from the real estate sales, Pro Publica reports. Though federal law protects innocent owners from forfeiture, those protections don’t extend to the local level, the story says.

One Philadelphia homeowner who fought to keep her home in a forfeiture action filed in 2010 is Rochelle Bing, a home health assistant for the elderly and disabled. According to the story, Bing is among a significant number of property owners who fought forfeiture or lost their homes because of drug charges against family members. Pro Publica also reviewed cases involving an elderly widow, two sisters who shared a home a waitress and a hospital worker.

Prosecutors sought forfeiture of Bing’s home after her son was charged with selling crack cocaine to an informant at the home. Bing wasn’t there at the time.

Bing won her case with free help from the University of Pennsylvania Legal Clinic. The case lasted two years and required 23 court appearances. Prosecutors settled the case with an agreement that Bing could keep her home if she did not allow her son to visit when she wasn’t home. In a statement, the DA’s office says it works to settle cases with innocent homeowners with no knowledge of wrongdoing so they don’t lose their property.

The story says Philadelphia isn’t alone in its aggressive pursuit of forfeitures. The city council in Washington, D.C., is considering limits on forfeitures of cars linked to crimes after a class-action suit was filed by the D.C. Public Defenders Service. The suit argued that a bond requirement for those requesting the forfeiture violated due process rights.

Another suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleged police in Tenaha, Texas, were stopping motorists for minor violations, searching vehicles and, if police found money or valuables, threatening arrest unless the motorists agreed to forfeiture. The city settled, but denied the traffic stops were unconstitutional. KERA News summarizes the allegations and links to a New Yorker story on the case.

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