Civil forfeiture turns cops into robbers

Philadelphia authorities enjoy robbing its innocent citizens and spending the money on fancy stuff for their own use.

The most terrifying place in Philadelphia is Courtroom 478 in City Hall. This is where property owners enter Philadelphia’s Civil Forfeiture Machine.

Philadelphia’s automated, machine-like forfeiture scheme is unprecedented in size. From 2002 to 2012, Philadelphia took in over $64 million in forfeiture funds—or almost $6 million per year. In 2011 alone, the city’s prosecutors filed 6,560 forfeiture petitions to take cash, cars, homes and other property. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office used over $25 million of that $64 million to pay salaries, including the salaries of the very prosecutors who brought the forfeiture actions. This is almost twice as much as what all other Pennsylvania counties spent on salaries combined.

This is how the city’s forfeiture machine works: Property owners who have their cash, cars or homes seized must go to Courtroom 478. But Courtroom 478 isn’t a courtroom at all: there is no judge or jury, just a scheduler and the prosecutors who run the show. Owners who ask for a lawyer are frequently told their case isn’t complicated and a lawyer isn’t necessary, but are then given a stack of complicated legal documents to fill out under oath. Time and time again, property owners must return to Courtroom 478—up to ten or more times in some cases. If they miss a single appearance, they can lose their property forever.

Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine stacks the deck against property owners and leads city officials to police for profit instead of justice. To end these unconscionable and unconstitutional practices, the Institute for Justice and a group of property owners have brought a major, class-action lawsuit in federal court. The lawsuit will take the profit incentive out of civil forfeiture and protect innocent people who are caught in an upside-down legal process that treats them like cash machines while violating their constitutional rights.

Chris Sourovelis, a lead plaintiff in the Institute for Justice's new Federal case against the City of Philadelphia, could lose his entire home because his son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside of the home. You can find more about the case here. Here is a link to the complaint.

Notable Replies

  1. Protip: If a prosecutor, cop, judge, or anybody in the legal system tells you "This is a routine matter, you don't need a lawyer." stop right there and get your lawyer.

    That's the first line they give everybody who is about to be railroaded.

  2. samsa says:

    The New Yorker had an article by Sarah Stillman in August of 2013 on this topic. It was probably the best thing I read in the NYer that entire year. Here it is.

  3. We've been following this issue since the mid 1980s, as former Hill staff, involved with drug legislation at Fed and State level. Jurisdictions around the country are awash with funds and so they buy "toys" that Army Generals would envy. It's gone on far too long. When will the public wake up to the horrendous job cops are doing. They're not heroes like soldiers and even firefighters. They daily abuse their authority, and combined with armies of prosecutors paid from CF money but bolstered by the law putting them in a more powerful position than ever (and reducing judges' powers), they wreak havoc on our Bill of Rights daily. The black community has carried this burden overwhelmingly, but hopefully articles and books will cause people to realize that everyone's rights are in jeopardy. I was a jury foreman recently and we were all careful to question the testimony of the cops and the prosecutors, even going so far as to wonder why this case had even been brought to trial. (We found the black woman not guilty -- insufficient evidence).

  4. Just the government ignoring the clearly-worded intent of the Constitution (in this case, 4th Amendment). Nothing new here. The 2nd, 4th, 9th, and 10th Amendments are favorites for being ignored.

    Maybe, in order to save time and space, BoingBoing should just post in those cases where the government and justice actually works.

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