Civil asset forfeiture is one of the most controversial law enforcement/government practices.
Unlike criminal forfeiture, where property is taken after its owner has been found guilty in a court of law, with civil forfeiture, owners need not be charged with a crime let alone be convicted to lose homes, cars, cash or other property.
The ACLU says asset forfeiture practices often go hand-in-hand with racial profiling and disproportionately impact low-income African-American or Hispanic people who the police decide look suspicious and for whom the arcane process of trying to get one’s property back is an expensive challenge.
A Philadelphia civil forfeiture law has reportedly allowed the government to take away citizens’ homes – and much of it funds city prosecutors.
Homeowners Christos Sourovelis, Norys Hernandez and Doris Welch have filed a lawsuit, which ‘claims property owners do not get to go before a judge before their property is seized, which violates the due process clause of the constitution.’
The home Sourovelis shares with his wife, Markela Sourovelis, was snatched because their son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside the house.
“I didn’t do nothing wrong…I didn’t bother anybody, but still they came in and moved us out of our house,” Christos Sourovelis said. “I have rights and we are still fighting for our house – no owners of houses in Philadelphia deserve that.”
Markela Sourovelis alleged to the affiliate station “We keep getting sent to this 478 room and for months, we go there and fill out papers.”
Their attorney Darpana Sheth says “Courtroom 478 is no courtroom at all. There’s no judge, there’s no jury, there’s not even a court reporter to transcribe these so-called hearings– instead it’s the prosecutors that run Courtroom 478.”
“[The money from civil forfeiture] goes to pay salaries, including [salaries of] prosecutors who wield an enormous amount of discretion to bring forfeiture claims,” Sheth said. “The city gets $6 million from civil forfeiture each year”
“Philadelphia has brought in more than $64 million in seized property during the last decade,” The Phildelphia Inquirer reports. “Proceeds make up almost 20 percent of the annual budget of the District Attorney’s Office. Forty percent pays for prosecutor salaries, including those of the lawyers involved in forfeiture proceedings.”
The Sourovelis are inside the home again, but legally cannot keep their son there.
District Attorney Seth Williams’ spokesperson, Tasha Jamerson, said “in all efforts, we follow applicable law to protect the rights of all of those involved – not only drug dealers… but the law-abiding citizens who are negatively affected by them.”