Because I’m concerned about self-governance and government overreach, I really dislike civil forfeiture laws.  These allow police to seize cash, cars, and even houses from people suspected of being connected to criminal activity.  Note: they have the right to do this even if the owner is not charged with a crime.  These laws give police and district attorneys, of course, a huge profit incentive since forfeiture revenue benefits their bottom lines.

Clarence Thomas aptly described the unfairness of this practice in his 2017 opinion in Leonard v. Texas.  He wrote:

This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses…

These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.

Exactly.  I’m gratified to see the Supreme Court justices taking a closer look at this horrific practice. Though this happens all over the nation, Philadelphia has historically been one of the worst offenders.  The “City of Brotherly Love” seizes from 300 to 500 homes per year.  Over the last decade, the city has seized $64 million in property… more than Brooklyn and Los Angeles combined.

It happened to Philadelphians Mr. and Mrs. Sourovelises in 2014.  One day, they dropped their son off for court-ordered rehab. When they got home, their day got substantially worse.  Even though there was no evidence that they knew about their son’s drug activity, the police had locked them out of their own home.

Four years after Philadelphia police seized the home of Markela and Chris Sourovelis for a minor drug crime committed by their son, the city has agreed to almost completely dismantle its controversial civil asset forfeiture program and pay $3 million to its victims.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, announced today that the city had agreed to a settlement in a federal civil rights class-action lawsuit challenging its forfeiture program.

“For too long, Philadelphia treated its citizens like ATMs, ensnaring thousands of people in a system designed to strip people of their property and their rights,” Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at the institute, said in a press release. “No more. Today’s groundbreaking agreement will end years of abuse and create a fund to compensate innocent owners.”

Here are the details:

Under the terms of the settlement, codified in two binding consent decrees, Philadelphia will no longer seek property forfeitures for simple drug possession and will stop seizing petty amounts of cash without accompanying arrests or evidence in a criminal case. It will also put judges in charge of forfeiture hearings, will streamline the hearing process, and will ban the Philadelphia district attorney and Philadelphia Police Department from using forfeiture revenue to fund their payroll.

The city will disburse the $3 million settlement fund to qualifying members of the class action based on the circumstances of their case. A Philadelphia resident whose property was forfeited but was never convicted of a related crime, for example, will receive 100 percent of the value of the property.

It looks like the city founded on freedom has taken at least a small step back toward liberty.

Image Credit: Good Free Photos

About The Author

Mark Meckler

Mark was a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, and served as the national coordinator. He left the organization to work more broadly on expanding the self-governance movement beyond the partisan divide. Mark appears regularly on television in outlets as diverse as MSNBC, ABC, NBC, Fox News, CNN, Bloomberg, Fox Business and the BBC. He’s highly sought after for the tea party perspective from print and electronic media outlets, from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Examiner, Politico and the The Hill. Mark blogs at MarkMeckler.com, and his opinion editorials regularly run in many of the leading political newspapers both on and offline. Mark has a BA in English from San Diego State University and graduated with honors from University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law in 1988. He practiced real estate and business law for almost a decade. For the last eleven years of his legal career he specialized in Internet advertising law. When not fighting for the future of our nation, Mark is an avid horseman, and lives in rural northern California with his wife Patty and two children.