Philadelphia Drops Asset Forfeiture Cases that Drew National Attention

Philadelphia has one of most aggressive, lucrative asset forfeiture programs

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Philadelphia skyline / AP
December 18, 2014

The Philadelphia District Attorney has dropped its efforts to seize the houses of two area families after their cases drew national and critical attention to the city’s use of asset forfeiture to seize citizens’ property.

The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, announced on Thursday morning that the Philadelphia D.A. was dropping its asset forfeiture cases against the homes of Christos Sourovelis and Doila Welch.

Sourovelis and Welch were the lead plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice in August seeking to shut down Philadelphia’s asset forfeiture program.

Police seized Sourevelis’ house in May after his son was arrested for selling $40-worth of drugs outside. The same day Sourovelis dropped his son off for court-ordered rehab treatment, the city kicked him and his wife out of it, even though there was no evidence they were aware of the drug activity.

Sourevelis and his wife were eventually allowed back into their house, but they’ve been fighting the city in court ever since to block the city’s efforts to seize it.

"After months of uncertainty, my family can finally rest easy knowing that our home is our home again," Christos said in a statement provided by the Institute for Justice. "I’ve lived in Philadelphia for over 30 years. I never thought it was possible for the police to just show up at my doorstep without notice and take my house when I’ve done nothing wrong. But that’s exactly what happened to me and my family—and we’re not alone. That’s why we’re going to keep fighting for everyone still trapped in Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture nightmare."

Sourevelis’ ordeal became the banner case for the Institute for Justice’s lawsuit and drew national media attention to asset forfeiture and Philadelphia, which has one of the most aggressive and lucrative asset forfeiture programs in the country.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize citizens’ property—anything ranging from houses, cars, flat-screen TVs, guns, or cash—even if they have not been charged with a crime.

Asset forfeiture is intended to disrupt organized criminal activity, especially drug trafficking, by cutting off its material support. However, critics say perverse incentives and a lack of safeguards lead just as often to ordinary citizens 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.

"We are pleased that Christos and Doila’s families will be able to enjoy their homes for the holidays," Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many other Philadelphia families. Philadelphia law enforcement continues to use its system of robo-forfeitures to pad its budgets with millions in unaccountable funds by stripping innocent people of their rights and property."

The Philadelphia D.A.’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.