People who lost money, cars, and homes to Philadephia’s civil asset forfeiture statutes are entitled to reimbursement if they file a claim by December 6.
The city settled a class action lawsuit last year and agreed to reform its civil forfeiture program—the legal practice that allows law enforcement agencies to seize cash, vehicles, and property that is suspected of being connected to a crime, sometimes without even charging or convicting the property owner for a crime.
Law enforcement in Philly purportedly used asset forfeiture to seize thousands of vehicles and homes as well as millions of dollars in cash from criminal cases. Civil rights advocates have long held that such seizures, which often occur before a conviction, violate the rights of property owners.
Under the proposed settlement, officials agreed to set up a $3 million fund to compensate the estimated 35,000 victims of the city’s overzealous use of asset forfeiture, but so far, only about 1,200 have filed claims.
“We’d love to get that number up because everyone who was a victim of this Draconian system is entitled to get up to the full value of what they lost,” said attorney Darpana Sheth of the Institute of Justice.
Everyone who files a claim, even if they were convicted, will received $90 in recognition that the way the city used civil asset forfeiture violated their constitutional rights. Victims were mailed a claim form, but they can also file a claim online.
Officials have also agreed to institute some changes, including increasing judicial oversight of future seizures and placing limits on the seizure of cash and property. Police can no longer seize assets for simple drug possession charges. In cases where narcotics involvement warrants enough suspicion, police can’t make seizures of any amount less than $250.
The historic settlement resolved a 2014 lawsuit brought by the nonprofit advocacy group Institute for Justice. Representatives of the group said district attorney offices use the proceeds from seized property as a revenue stream, which incentivized law enforcement to seize a criminal suspect’s property.
In the decade before the lawsuit was filed in 2014, prosecutors in Philadelphia reportedly confiscated more than 3,000 vehicles, 1,200 homes, and around $50 million in cash. How the proceeds of these seizures was used is a mystery. Police chiefs and district attorneys freely admit to using the funds, but rarely provide details on how exactly it is spent.
In other cases in the United States, civil asset forfeiture funds have been used to pad budgets for underfunded law enforcement programs. However, there have also been cases of law enforcement inappropriately using funds for personal purposes. There is no current information about how the funds were spent in this case.
While the practice has largely stopped in Philadelphia because of the lawsuit, reports indicate that it has quietly ramped up in other parts of Pennsylvania, particularly in Berks County.
South Florida Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire an attorney. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.