Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams speaks at a 2013 press conference.
Credit: Rikard Larma / Metro file photo
A class action lawsuit was filed yesterday in Philadelphia federal court that sharply criticizes the civil forfeiture practices of the District Attorney's Office as "rigged" and a "machine."
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three residents whose homes were targeted for seizure by the D.A.’s office after family members engaged in criminal activity were arrested at or near their homes.
"Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize and keep property, without ever convicting, or even charging the owner with a crime," said Nico Perrino of the Institute for Justice, a property rights activism group that is co-filing the suit along with attorney David Rudovsky, in an email.
The civil forfeiture laws in question give government the ability to file to seize properties that belong to individuals involved in criminal activity.
But the lawsuit charges that civil forfeiture in Philadelphia is out of control and far more frequently used than in other cities.
"Philly takes in nearly $6 million a year in forfeiture revenue by seizing thousands of its citizens' homes, cars and cash. ... That's more than Brooklyn, New York and Los Angeles County--combined," Perrino claimed. "The revenue accounts for 20 percent of the District Attorney's budget, with 40 percent of that going to their salaries, providing a perverse incentive to use and abuse this tool."
One plaintiff in the lawsuit allegedly had their home seized after their Temple student son was caught selling about $40 of drugs, and police came to search the home.
The lawsuit states that the officers held the family dog at gunpoint to force the homeowners to allow them inside, found more drugs inside the son's room, and that a prosecutor from the D.A.'s office later filed for civil forfeiture of their home, which forfeiture is currently pending.
The lawsuit will be officially announced at a press conference at noon today.
The D.A.'s office did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Read the lawsuit here.