Homeowners file for injunction against Philadelphia's civil forfeitures

By Jim Boyle | Sep 10, 2014

A group of homeowners have asked  a federal judge to grant a preliminary injunction

against the City of Philadelphia's practice of seizing homes accused of involvement with drug sales, according to a motion filed at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Lawyers from the Institute for Justice made the request before District Judge Eduardo Robreno on behalf of a group of clients that began a class action suit against the City of Philadelphia to reclaim alleged damages from the district attorney's long-standing practice also known as "seize and seal."

According to the class action suit, Philadelphia has abused the civil forfeiture system to add millions of dollars in revenue to its budget.

"Philadelphia's program stripped thousands of city residents of over 1,000 residences, 3,200 vehicles, and $44 million in cash over an eleven-year period, ultimately raking in more than $64 million in revenue wholly outside its appropriated budget," the complaint says.

The claim says the system operates by having the D.A.'s office sue properties, not the owners, in civil actions relating to drug activity. The homeowners are required to come to the court and defend against the allegations, but if the city wins, it keeps the property and sells it.

The named plaintiffs in the class action all stand to lose their homes through the civil forfeiture process, the complaint says. Christos Sourovelis, Doila Welch and Norys Hernandez represent thousands of residents who have been unfairly evicted from their homes with no notice from law enforcement and little recourse to win back their properties, the complaint says.

In all three cases, a family member had been arrested for selling small amounts of marijuana, according to the claim. Philadelphia police officers received authorization from the district attorney's office and the court to remove all of the occupants and seal the home for civil forfeiture. In the cases of Sourovelis and Welch, they were eventually allowed to re-enter their homes after attending numerous court proceedings and filling out paperwork.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief for themselves and all others affected by the city's use of civil forfeitures, the complaint says.

The federal case ID number is 2:14-cv-04687-ER.

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