Changes to Pennsylvania and Philly's forfeiture rules too weak

Philly’s DA seized this West Philadelphia home because it suspected the owner’s son was selling marijuana. (ALEJANDRO ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )

If ever there was doubt about the wisdom of stopping law enforcement from seizing the property of innocent people under civil forfeiture, consider how disgraced former District Attorney Seth Williams used the proceeds of confiscated property to pad his budgets.

At the height of his spree, he took in about $6 million a year by grabbing people’s homes, cash, and cars whether they were accused of a crime or not.

The practice was so vicious that the conservative Institute for Justice sued Williams and two years ago got him to stop kicking people out of their homes.

Among the District Attorney Office’s most egregious acts was taking the Northeast Philadelphia home of Markela and Chris Sourovelis,  whose son was arrested for selling about $40 worth of heroin three years ago. Police did not even suspect the couple of a crime, yet the DA seized their home, forcing them to find shelter with relatives. To get the house back, the couple had to agree to keep their son out.

Philadelphia hasn’t been the only abusive jurisdiction. Lancaster County’s drug task force was so overzealous, it snatched cash from a woman’s purse when her son was busted on drug charges.

Under civil forfeiture, law enforcement authorities can take the homes people live in, the cars they drive to work, and the cash they use to buy food whether they think those people committed a crime or not.

The cases in Philadelphia and Lancaster have forced some modest changes in Pennsylvania’s harsh civil forfeiture rules, but they don’t go far enough.

A law passed in June promised to not only raise the standards for seizing property but to mitigate the perverse incentives for authorities to use forfeiture money to feed their budgets.

But like so many things in Harrisburg, it fell short. The law raised the standards for seizing property by shifting the burden of proof from innocent property owners to law enforcement, but it should have prohibited seizures until after criminal convictions and a judge’s determination that the property was, in fact, used by a criminal in a crime.

The new law also keeps the incentive for law enforcement to grab properties by letting DAs have direct control over the proceeds.

These disappointments come as the federal government wants to step up civil forfeitures.

But there’s still a chance for improvements in Philadelphia. The federal case that gave the Sourovelises their home back is still wending through the courts.

U.S. Judge Eduardo Robreno two years ago approved a partial settlement, which stopped the DA from seizing homes of innocent people. Soon, he will have a chance to approve the DA’s offer to divert seizure funds to the city – which might mean the money could be used for blight remediation or drug therapy.

But that’s a big “if,” since neither the city nor DA’s office have offered details on how the money would be spent or controlled.

Based on the civil forfeiture’s history of abuse, Robreno should extract a very detailed plan from both on how the money would be spent and give a third party, perhaps the city controller, oversight of the funds.