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Philadelphia Robbing the Poor Through Civil Forfeiture

by Ed Lyon 

In just the four zip codes of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, whose mainly black and Hispanic residents suffer high rates of poverty, civil asset forfeiture (CAF) proceedings netted 1,682 properties that were seized and sold by the District Attorney’s office between 1993 and 2018. During the first decade of that period, the number of CAF proceedings in Kensington skyrocketed from a dozen in 1994 to 211 in 2003. 

While most other areas of the city never experienced a single asset forfeiture, CAF was used to seize 1,200 homes, 3,500 vehicles and more than $50 million in cash from Philadelphians, many of whom were innocent of any crime, between 2002 and 2014. Norys Hernandez and her sister owned a two-story row house in the Kensington area where her nephew was arrested on suspicion of dealing drugs – a charge that Hernandez knew nothing about until police came to seize her home.

Under the CAF program, properties could be taken without any criminal complaint against the owner, much less a conviction. Hernandez, for example, was never charged in her nephew’s drug-dealing case, and the city’s forfeiture suit was filed against the property itself. All of the properties seized under CAF were auctioned and sold, resulting in a $6 million annual windfall split between the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) and the DA’s office.

CAF brought in enough money to significantly underwrite the budgets of both agencies – incentivizing more property seizures by the same people whose salaries and equipment were being funded from the auction proceeds. The PPD purchased a new $2 million building with CAF funds, along with submachine guns and “custom uniform embroidery” – earning CAF the nickname “policing for profit.”

Individual police officers also profited. PPD Lieutenant Marvin Burton, who runs the department’s Crime Scene Unit, purchased a number of properties at auction that had been forfeited in the patrol district where he was assigned, as well as in a neighboring district that had a high forfeiture rate. Another officer, Detective Lawrence Greene, also purchased a number of forfeited properties over the years, enough that local media began referring to him as a “detective-turned-speculator.” He said he never worked in any of the districts where the properties he bought were seized, adding that he was not asked if he was a police officer at the DA auctions.

CAF hits non-white communities the hardest. A 2015 study by the Pennsylvania ACLU found that 71 percent of properties were seized from black owners. But white city residents have been victimized, too. When police took the home of Chris Sourovelis, a Greek immigrant, because his son had been arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs at the residence, the DA’s office insisted that Sourovelis sign away his right to contest the seizure as an excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment before the rest of his family was allowed back in the house to collect their belongings.

Although Philadelphia has been particularly aggressive with seizures, it is not the only city to abuse civil forfeitures. New Mexico law prohibits CAF, but the city of Albuquerque continues to take and sell cars. Indiana law stipulates that all CAF proceeds must go to the common school fund, but Indianapolis keeps almost all such funds for its own use. Rather than assume the burden of notifying owners that their seized property will be sold, Arizona leaves them to discover that on their own and figure how to contest it. Even the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has attempted to force people to sign hold harmless agreements when their property is seized.

The Arlington, Virginia-based Institute of Justice (IOJ) took up Sourovelis’ case, filing a class-action lawsuit against the city in 2015. The parties reached a $3 million settlement in September 2018, and Philadelphia finally agreed to rein in its CAF program. The money will be paid to those whose properties were unfairly seized or never returned, while CAF itself will change, with new limits on property seizures and judicial oversight of the forfeiture process. See: Sourovelis v. City of Philadelphia, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:14-cv-04687-ER.

From now on, the PPD must provide a receipt for seized property with instructions on how it can be retrieved; further, a court proceeding must be filed within 90 days or the property will be returned. And because a judge will take over the process from the DA’s office, a conviction is required – meaning that seized assets must have either been bought with the proceeds of crime or used to commit a criminal offense. Funds from asset sales will now go to drug rehabilitation programs.

For too long, Philadelphia treated its citizens like ATMs, ensnaring thousands of people in a system designed to strip people of their property and their rights,” said Darpana Sheth, a senior IOJ attorney. “No more.”

Newly-elected DA Larry Krasner, whose campaign included a promise to end civil forfeiture, called it “a good day for the city of Philadelphia,” adding, “We have turned away from something that was unjust and inappropriate that went on in this city for too long.”

Mayor Jim Kenney agreed, saying, “In short, this settlement makes Philadelphia a more just city.” 



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Related legal case

Sourovelis v. City of Philadelphia