Police and prosecutors should not treat people like ATMs. But for years, Philadelphia cashed in with a program that systematically stripped people of their property and constitutional rights. Last week, the Institute for Justice announced a settlement that, if approved by the court, would bring such practices to an end.
Four years ago, Chris and Markela Sourovelis faced the crisis of their lives. Their son, secretly struggling with addiction, was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs outside their North Philadelphia home. The city took a bad situation and made it worse. On the day Chris took his son to rehab, police arrived at the couple's home, evicted them, and said they would lose their home forever.
Despite their innocence, Chris and Markela found themselves trapped in a rigged system where prosecutors held all the cards and kept all the spoils. At its center was "Courtroom 478," a misnomer since this court had no judge. Instead, prosecutors called the cases and ran the proceedings. If individuals missed even a single "hearing," prosecutors could sell their property and use the proceeds for any law enforcement purpose they wished.
That legal procedure is called civil forfeiture. With civil forfeiture, it is a person's property — not the individual himself — that is on trial. Many people ensnared by Philadelphia's forfeiture machine were never even charged with a crime. From 2002 to 2014, that machine stripped tens of thousands of Philadelphians of more than 1,200 homes, 3,500 vehicles, and $50 million in cash. It used more than 35 percent of those proceeds on salaries, including the salaries of the very officials tasked with seizing and forfeiting property.
This practice was not only wrong, it was unconstitutional. Chris, Markela, and other property owners teamed up with the Institute for Justice to mount a federal class-action lawsuit to end these abuses once and for all. And now — after four years of litigation — that lawsuit has resulted in a landmark settlement that would, if approved, overhaul the city's forfeiture practices and stop police and prosecutors from spending forfeiture proceeds as they see fit.
The settlement is composed of two consent decrees. In the first, the city agrees to sweeping reforms of the Orwellian way forfeiture proceedings are conducted. Among other things, it would greatly restrict when money and other property could be seized or subjected to forfeiture. It would ensure that judges — not prosecutors — control forfeiture proceedings and monitor settlements for fairness. And it would provide owners with prompt and meaningful opportunities to challenge the seizure of their property.
The second consent decree would end law enforcement's unconstitutional financial incentive to seize private property. It would ban the district attorney and the Police Department from using forfeiture proceeds on salaries or other law enforcement purposes. Instead, proceeds would go to community-based drug prevention and treatment programs.
The settlement would also establish a $3 million fund to compensate forfeiture victims. Everyone forced to navigate Philadelphia's forfeiture machine since August 2012 would be eligible for up to $90 in recognition of the violation of their constitutional rights. People who forfeited property, but were not convicted of a related criminal charge, would get up to 100 percent of the value of their property back, while people sent to a diversionary program for first-time, low-level offenders would get up to 75 percent. A portion of funds not used to compensate victims would go to nonprofit groups that are helping those communities hit hardest by forfeiture.
This is truly a landmark settlement.
So, Philadelphians, remember Chris and Markela Sourovelis and your other neighbors who spurred this sea change. Remember that, even after they saved their own homes and property, they kept fighting to protect thousands of Philadelphians. And remember that, should this settlement receive the court's blessing, no one will ever have to suffer through what Chris and Markela endured four long years ago.