In 2014, Philadelphia police seized the home of Chris and Markela Sourovelis after their son was arrested for selling drugs worth $40 outside on their property. The police used a process known as civil asset forfeiture to take the property. This is a legal procedure where law enforcement can take someone’s property or cash if it is suspected of being involved in a crime. They can do so without a criminal conviction or even filing criminal charges.
According to the Institute for Justice (IJ), the use of civil asset forfeiture in Philadelphia has gone “unchecked” for years. Until recently, all funds from civil asset forfeiture seizures went directly Philadelphia’s law enforcement.
Between 2012-17, the District Attorney’s Office and the Philadelphia Police Department spent over $7 million from these funds. More than 18 percent of the DA’s annual budget came from civil forfeitures. There was little oversight on these funds: they were used to pay for submachine guns, a website, and even parking tickets.
When Chris and Markela discovered they were not alone, they joined a class-action lawsuit against the city filed by IJ. The suit claimed that the DA’s Office, the City, and the First Judicial District violated due process during seizures.
On Tuesday, the prosecution and law enforcement came to a consent decree agreement—that is, a resolution where there is no admission of guilt or liability—which announced significant changes to the application of civil asset forfeiture in Philadelphia.
Under the settlement, funds from civil forfeitures will no longer go to the Philadelphia PD. Instead, the money will be given to nonprofits. If an arrest is simply for possession of drugs, police may seize the illegal drugs but no property. Law enforcement will now provide a receipt of seized property; the receipt will also contain instruction on how to get the property back. An individual may soon file for the immediate return of property if it affects his or her livelihood—for example, if the person works as an Uber driver and his or her vehicle is seized. A simplified legal process will be put in place, and the process will now be under the control of judges rather than the prosecutors.
Philadelphia’s District Attorney, Larry Krasner, spoke approvingly of the agreement. “This settlement agreement was a long time coming and something our city needs… We will focus on cases where there is a conviction and, thanks to the settlement, residents now have additional protections and a clear process to retake possession of their property.”
“The settlement is going to make civil forfeiture a lot harder to pursue,” said Darpana Sheth of the IJ. “They have a higher standard of proof. They have to show the property owner knew about or consented to the illegal activity.”
In order for the agreement to go into effect, it needs to be approved by Judge Eduardo Robreno. A $3 million fund will be available for people who had property seized to receive compensation. Individuals not convicted of a crime will receive 100 percent of the value of their property. First-time offenders and low-level offenders will receive 75 percent of the value.
“This is a good resolution because it reforms a system that, left unchecked, can prey upon the most vulnerable. People who, in many instances, have no understanding of their rights and no one to fight for them,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “In short, this settlement makes Philadelphia a more just city.”
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.