Federal judge to rule soon on civil-forfeiture seizures

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Christos Sourovelis and his wife, Markela, had their Somerton home seized after their son was arrested for drug dealing. They are part of a suit over Philadelphia's civil forfeiture program.

A partial settlement over the city district attorney's use of civil-forfeiture laws to take property from people not convicted of crimes - and in some cases not accused - awaits formal approval after a hearing in federal court Monday.

Both plaintiffs and defendants agreed to key changes, and U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno is expected to issue a decision within several days.

No property owners testified.

The District Attorney's Office agreed to change two of the most scrutinized aspects of the program, which brings in about $6 million a year as it seeks to take cash, houses, and cars from drug dealers and those associated with them.

In court Monday and in earlier filings, city lawyers agreed to limit the practice of barring homeowners from properties tied up in forfeiture proceedings until the case has been heard by a judge.

Also, city prosecutors would no longer enforce several requirements commonly included in deals struck to settle forfeiture cases. Those include blocking relatives accused of crimes from living at the property and limiting the rights of owners to fight off future forfeiture efforts.

"No longer will innocent homeowners . . . face the injustice of being kicked out of their home," said plaintiffs' attorney Darpana Sheth of the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm in Arlington, Va.

The policy shift has come amid calls from lawmakers to overhaul Pennsylvania's forfeiture laws, and as national scrutiny of the city's program grows. Critics say it, too, often snares innocent people in its dragnet.

Last year, four Philadelphia property owners whose houses or cars had been seized filed a civil-rights lawsuit challenging aspects of the program.

Lead plaintiff Christos Sourovelis and his wife, Markela, were kicked out of their $350,000 house in Somerton in May 2014 without notice after police arrested their 22-year-old son, Yianni, for selling drugs outside.

"We're excited about the decision," Markela Sourovelis said outside the courtroom Monday. "It's what we were fighting for."

District Attorney Seth Williams has defended the use of state forfeiture laws, calling them an effective tool that makes it harder for drug dealers to operate by eliminating their profit.

"Don't believe the claims that we are just snatching up property, mostly homes and autos, owned by random individuals who have nothing to do with drug dealing," he wrote in a column in The Inquirer.

Chief among the remaining issues is where the proceeds of forfeited property end up. Currently, the funds supplement budgets for city police and prosecutors, which critics say provides a profit motive for continued seizures.

The lawsuit followed an in-depth 2012 article about the civil forfeiture program in Philadelphia City Paper.

jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage