If anyone knows how unjust civil asset forfeiture can be, it’s Philadelphia resident Norys Hernandez. Law enforcement attempted to seize the house she owned with her sister even though she had done nothing wrong. The authorities attempted to take her home after her nephew was arrested for dealing drugs on the property.
It took years, but Norys eventually got her house back. She was part of a class-action lawsuit that was settled for $3 million last year.
Civil asset forfeiture is the legal process where police may take someone’s property if it is suspected of being involved in a crime. A criminal conviction is not required in most states. In fact, of the four plaintiffs named in the class-action lawsuit who had their houses seized, none were accused of having committed a crime. In three cases, the houses were seized because a relative had been caught selling drugs in the house.
In 2018, Philadelphia reformed its civil asset forfeiture procedures. This change was fêted by many as an end to the heavy-handed use of civil forfeiture in the city. While these reforms should reduce the worst excesses of civil asset forfeiture in Philadelphia, it will not eliminate the practice altogether. Law enforcement may also be able to partner with the fed in their “equitable sharing” plan in order to avoid the city’s restrictions altogether.
Describing the city’s former approach, City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said, “We tried to confiscate and arrest our way out of the drug problem.”
The seizures of people’s homes were heavily centered on Latino and black districts of the city. In fact, more than two-fifths of all seized properties came from only four ZIP codes all of which had high rates of poverty and had a majority Latino or black population. On one block in Waterloo Street between 2011 and 2015, law enforcement attempted to take ownership of almost a quarter of the houses.
The large number of seizures in such a small area has negatively impacted those communities. “Forfeiture is a perfect example of what the city’s strategy was,” said Quiñones-Sánchez. “It was a lot of people reacting to the drug issue, but no one thinking about how to actually stabilize the properties.”
Once they had seized the properties, law enforcement would then auction them off. However, there was no plan for how to use these sales to improve the neighborhoods affected by drug crime. Between 1993 and 2018, the Philadelphia DA auctioned off more than 1,600 properties. Many of these were sold to investors or absentee landlords who had either no motivation or interest in improving the houses they bought, leading to further deterioration in the neighborhood.
Often police would seize the same house several times. After being auctioned, these houses found themselves being used for criminal activity time and again.
Many houses were left to decay while they are in legal limbo, leading to further problems in the affected communities. “It was in poor condition. It had been abandoned for a long time,” said Andrew Bowers of the house next to his which the DA attempted to seize in 2004 and has been vacant ever since. “It would need a total rehab job to make it livable again.”
While people such as Norys Hernandez have been able to keep their property, the scars of law enforcement’s use of civil asset forfeiture in Philadelphia will live with the city for a long time.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.