Lawsuit accuses D.A.'s office of operating civil forfeiture "machine" for profit

A class-action lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of three homeowners facing civil forfeiture due to drug crimes commit by family members at or near their homes claims the process is unconstitutional.

Christos Sourovelis, center, speaks about his experience fighting a civil forfeiture case against his home. He is a plaintiff in a class-action federal lawsuit filed Monday, August 11. Credit: Sam Newhouse/Metro Christos Sourovelis, center, speaks about his experience fighting a civil forfeiture case that could seize his home. He is a plaintiff in a class-action federal lawsuit filed on Monday, August 11. Credit: Sam Newhouse/Metro

 

In March, Markela Sourovelis saw police officers appear outside her Somerton home. One was pointing a handgun at her dog's head.

 

"He said, 'Open the door or we're gonna shoot your dog,'" Sourovelis said.

 

Sourovelis and her husband Christos' son, a Temple student, had been arrested a night before for selling $40 worth of drugs. Police found more drugs in her son's bedroom.

 

"They said ... 'We're gonna take this house and we're gonna make it ours,'" she said.

A month later, a civil forfeiture order was filed by the Philadelphia D.A.'s office to seize the Sourovelises home.

Now, they are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that claims these civil forfeiture procedures under the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act are unconstitutional.

"Police and prosecutors ... get to keep all of the property they forfeit for their own use, giving them a direct and perverse incentive to take property and make a profit, rather than to seek justice," said attorney Scott Bullock with the Institute for Justice (IJ), the public interest law firm handling the suit.

Bullock called Philadelphia's civil forfeiture practices "one of the greatest threats to private property in America today."

The three property owners named in the suit are all facing forfeiture of their houses due to family members who engaged in illegal drug activity at or near their properties.

"Most of the civil forfeiture actions that the DA prosecutes are controlled substances violations, but they're going after property owners who were not charged with any kind of violation," said IJ attorney Darpana Sheth.

The lawsuit says forfeiture proceedings at Courtroom 478 in City Hall are "stacked" against defendants.

It also claims that the D.A.'s office seized $64 million in property under the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act between 2002 and 2012, or about $6 million a year -- twice as much as law enforcement in L.A. and Brooklyn seize, combined -- and 40 percent of those funds went to salaries in the D.A.'s office.

But Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for the D.A.'s office, said those numbers are "greatly exaggerated."

"The money received from drug forfeitures by PNTF [Public Nuisance Task Force] is split by this office and the police department and monitored by the Attorney General's Office. By law the money received from drug forfeitures by the PNTF can only be used to combat criminal drug activity," she said in an email.

For the Sourovelises, the civil forfeiture proceeding started by sealing their home for a week, until they signed a court order that they would not permit their son to enter the home.

Now, they have been offered a settlement that would allow their son to return home -- but would require them to give up their right to fight losing the home if any drug violation is ever reported at their home in the future, they said.

They will return to Courtroom 478 in a month to see how the civil forfeiture case is proceeding.

Read the lawsuit here.

 
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