Inside the Worst Forfeiture Court in America

FEATURE: Why a class-action lawsuit aims to shut down Philadelphia’s daily shakedown of its own citizens

Philadelphia, Pa. / AP
September 16, 2014

PHILADELPHIA – Room 478 is a dumpy little courtroom on the fourth floor of the Philadelphia City Hall. Well, it’s technically a courtroom, but one could be forgiven for not recognizing it as such. There is no judge or jury or formal "all rise" when the proceedings start every day at 9 a.m. sharp—just a couple of prosecutors and a crowd of confused, frustrated people sitting in old wooden chairs.

I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place when I walked in. "Is this the forfeiture court?" I asked a woman who was already seated.

"I have no idea," she said, clutching a sheaf of legal papers like a life preserver. It is fair to say most of the people who end up in Room 478 barely understand the process they’ve been thrust into.

Room 478 is home to Philadelphia’s asset forfeiture court. It’s one of the most notorious forfeiture programs in the country, so much so that the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, filed a class-action lawsuit in August to shut the program down.

An obscure, little-covered legal process until recent years, civil asset forfeiture laws allow police and prosecutors to seize property from suspected criminals—most often cash, cars, guns, and houses.

Asset forfeiture is intended to disrupt criminal activity, especially drug trafficking and other organized operations. The FBI says it "takes the profit out of crime," and in this sense it can be a very effective tool.

But critics say perverse incentives and a lack of safeguards lead just as often to ordinary citizens—some of whom haven’t even been charged with a crime, much less convicted—having their property seized, after which they must go through an arduous and costly process to retrieve it.

Philadelphia hauled in $64 million in seized property over the last decade, according to an investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer. That’s more than Brooklyn and Los Angeles combined. Not only does Philadelphia take in more than other cities, but the average seizure is significantly more petty. A City Paper review of 100 cases from 2011 and 2012 found the median amount of cash seized by the District Attorney was only $178.

I had arrived at the Philadelphia asset forfeiture court on Wednesday to see the program for myself. Wednesdays are a busy day in Room 478. That’s when the city holds forfeiture listings for cars.

An assistant district attorney walked into the room with a thick bundle of brown case folders, sat down at the counsel’s table with her back to the waiting crowd, and began calling people forward one by one.

The interactions usually take no longer than 30 seconds. The prosecutor hands the person that has been called forward a "questionnaire," which is actually a legal interrogatory. The questions are answered under oath and can constitute an admission of guilt, not to mention perjury. Many people, without any legal counsel to advise them, sit at a small table in Room 478 and write down their answers on the spot.

Vehicles are often returned after the interrogatory is filled out and a fine is paid, but not at the first hearing. On average, citizens must attend five mandatory hearings at Room 478 to retrieve their property, according to an Institute for Justice review of 8,000 asset forfeiture cases. If someone misses one of those hearings, their property can be summarily forfeited.

Sitting next to me in Room 478 was Robert Bond, a carefully groomed, middle-aged black man. Dressed in a white button-down shirt, tie, and dress shoes, he looked more put together than the rest of the crowd. Bond, 48, is a doorman at an upscale condominium and runs a landscaping business on the side. "What are you here for?" I asked him.

Police arrested Bonds in August for soliciting a $10 sex act from a prostitute. He was going through a divorce at the time. Bond said he had originally agreed to the illegal act but then had second thoughts. He told the prostitute he’d be back and had just shifted his car into drive when a police officer ran up to him with a gun pointed at his head.

Bond said the police cuffed him and left him the back of a hot police van for two hours before jailing him and releasing him the next afternoon. He was charged with soliciting a prostitute, a misdemeanor offense. As part of a new diversion program for johns, Bond can get the crime expunged from his record after paying a $215 court fine and attending a $250 "sexual education and responsibility" class.

But Philadelphia also seized his car, and it has been sitting in impound since August. A notebook with all of Bond’s landscaping clients is inside his car. The police won’t let him retrieve it.

"I’ve got over 60 landscape customers in that book," he told me. "Right now I’m doing yards off the top of my head, and I can’t bill people I normally bill."

He’ll have to pay another $175 to retrieve his car. "I could have flown to Vegas where it’s legal, and it would have been cheaper," Bond said.

Outside the courtroom, Philadelphia lawyer Aaron Finestone was talking to a pro-bono client.

Since civil asset forfeiture doesn’t fall under the criminal code, citizens have no right to a public defender, and the burden of proof falls on them to prove their innocence. Most of the people ordered to appear at Room 478 cannot afford a lawyer. Finestone volunteers to take on some of their cases.

"I had a man about a year ago who was about 68-years old," Finestone said in an interview. "He worked at a drug treatment program. So he’s coming home from work at 10 o’clock at night. This decoy prostitute comes up and engages him in a conversation. He says ‘I’m not interested.’ Next thing he knows, he’s arrested for solicitation and they take his car."

I told Finestone that I had just spoken with someone in the court who told a similar story.

"Another guy," he said, shrugging his shoulders.

While there is at least an argument to be made for levying harsh punishments against those who solicit prostitutes, in other cases citizens who are only tangentially connected to crimes are swept up in the asset forfeiture dragnet. Finestone described another case he took on, where a family had to wage a six-month legal battle to keep their home after police arrested their teenager for selling drugs out of it without their knowledge.

Such cases are not unusual. The Institute for Justice’s banner case in its lawsuit to stop asset forfeiture in Philadelphia is Christos and Markela Sourovelis. The Sourovelis’ son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs in April.

In May, the same day Markos Sourovelis dropped his son off for court-ordered rehab treatment, the city seized his house and kicked him and his wife out of it, even though there was no evidence they were aware of the drug activity.

Under Pennsylvania law, prosecutors only need to rely on a preponderance of evidence to seize property under civil asset forfeiture—a lower burden of proof than the standard "beyond a reasonable doubt" used in criminal cases.

The city eventually allowed the couple to return to their home on the condition that their son did not.

"The founders of the republic did not have this in mind," Finestone said. "They would be outraged. That’s why we have a Bill of Rights. This is what the British were doing."

Items seized by police through asset forfeiture range from houses to cars to the nonsensical and petty.

"We had one woman who was pulled over," the Institute for Justice’s Darpana Sheth told me in a phone interview. "She had back surgery a long time ago, and there was an old pill bottle in her car. The police seized her cell phone, medicine, and the jumper cables in the back of her car. It’s not clear what the relationship was between the jumper cables and the drug activity."

The majority of people at Wednesday’s hearing were minorities. Several were not native English speakers. One man had trouble understanding the prosecutors’ instructions, including the fact that he needed to give them a money order for $265.

"There’s a 7-11 right across the street," the prosecutor told him out in the hall. "You can get a money order there."

One of the biggest problems with the Philadelphia forfeiture system, the Institute for Justice and other critics say, is that the prosecutors—an adversarial party—advise the very people from whom they are seizing property. And the proceeds from that property directly pay in part those same prosecutors’ salaries. Of the $64 million the city has brought in through asset seizures over the last decade, about $25 million has gone toward law enforcement and prosecutor salaries. Asset forfeiture proceeds make up 20 percent of the Philadelphia D.A.’s annual budget.

If there’s one thing you can say in favor of Philadelphia’s forfeiture court, at least it’s efficient. Less than two hours after the day’s session began, the room had gone from full to nearly empty.

"Have I not called anyone’s name?" the prosecutor asked. Megan Dota, 26, raised her hand. A single mother of two with a third child due in mid-October, Dota had been waiting her turn as patiently as could be expected of an eight-months-pregnant woman.

Dota said a father of one her close friends drove her car to a shop to get a new sound system installed. After he was later arrested on criminal charges, none of which involved Dota, police arrived at the shop and seized her car. That was in April, and Dota has been to four hearings at Room 478 since then.

It may sound odd that Dota lost her car even though she was not charged as an accessory to any crime but, in one of the more whimsical quirks of American law, asset forfeiture is a civil action against the property itself—not its owner. On paper Megan Dota’s case would not be Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Dota, but rather something like Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. One 2010 Toyota Corolla. This is not just a hypothetical absurdity. The Institute for Justice cites one such case, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. 542 Ontario Street. The house lost on appeal.

"I have a court hearing in October, and the lady in there just told me I’m going to have to pay all the fees to get my car back," Dota said as she walked out of the courtroom. "I don’t have money like that."

In the meantime, Dota is relying on public transportation.

I tried to interview one of the prosecutors as she left the room, but she said she could not comment due to the pending litigation. A request for comment to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office was not returned.

Philadelphia’s forfeiture court churns through dozens of cases every day, five days a week, starting at 9 a.m. sharp, all year long, one person at a time.

"Philadelphia is bad," Bonds told me. "If I didn’t have a good job and a business, I would move. I see why people lose their minds here. I see why people are so mean here. It makes you just want to walk down the street and throw stuff around."

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