Pa. civil forfeiture reform doesn't go far enough to protect citizens

Seized Property-Lawsuit
Markela and Chris Sourovelis embrace during a news conference in August 2014.

Three years ago, Chris and Markela Sourovelis saw their American Dream turn into an American Nightmare. After police officers arrested their youngest son for selling $40 of drugs without their knowledge, police returned to seize their home and evict them.

The Sourovelises had no warning or ability to contest eviction. In order to return to their home, prosecutors in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office forced them to sign an agreement permanently banning their son from their home and waiving their rights to challenge the DA’s actions in court.

Philadelphia sought to take the Sourovelises’ home through a legal process called civil-forfeiture, which allows law enforcement officials to take, keep, and sell property they believe is connected to a crime — even if they know that its owners have done nothing wrong. To fight back, the Sourovelises teamed up with the Institute for Justice and other Philadelphia property owners and filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the city’s use of civil forfeiture.

After a court refused to dismiss the lawsuit, Philadelphia agreed to stop two of the city’s most outrageous practices. First, Philadelphia’s police and prosecutors have stopped seizing homes without warning. Now, they have to prove to a court that there is an emergency requiring immediate action and that there are no less drastic ways to protect the public. As a result of this requirement, Philadelphia’s practice of evicting people without notice has ground to a halt. And it should have — the practice was flagrantly unconstitutional, as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized nearly a quarter century ago.

Second, the city stopped imposing unfair conditions on people trying to fight their forfeiture cases. It can no longer force people to give up their constitutional rights and kick out family members. Philadelphia homeowners will no longer have to choose between their home and their family.

Recently, Gov. Wolf signed a forfeiture bill extending the first of these reforms to the rest of the state.

The bill includes other beneficial but limited-reforms. Before, if police suspected property was tied to a crime, the government only had to prove it by a “preponderance of the evidence” — which is effectively proving that it was more likely tied to a crime than not (e.g., “50 percent, plus one”). Meanwhile, owners had to prove they did not know about or consent to any unlawful use of their property.

In other words, until the reform passed, Pennsylvanians were guilty until proven innocent.

The reform bill raises Pennsylvania’s standard of proof and shifts the burden of proof from property owners to the government, which is where it belongs. In addition, the bill includes new transparency requirements and new protections for property owners acquitted of a crime.

However, serious problems with Pennsylvania’s forfeiture laws remain.

As Wolf lamented, even after signing the bill, property owners can still lose their property without being convicted of — or even charged with — a crime. Worse still, Pennsylvania law enforcement, including in Philadelphia, can use 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds to pad their budgets and salaries. This direct and powerful financial incentive has lured law enforcement away from the impartial pursuit of justice.

That is why, despite Pennsylvania’s new forfeiture reforms, the Institute for Justice continues to litigate its class action challenging these practices. As long as forfeiture proceeds can fund Pennsylvania law enforcement’s salaries and other benefits, forfeiture will continue to be out of control.

Milad Emam is an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which is representing the Sourovelises in the class-action lawsuit against Philadelphia. memam@ij.org