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Class Claims Philadelphia Abuses Forfeiture

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office unconstitutionally seizes property without a hearing and sells it without due process, to raise millions of dollars to pay its employee's salaries, a class action claims in Federal Court.

Lead plaintiff Christos Sourovelis claims Philadelphia abuses the process of civil asset forfeiture, in which property used in a crime is charged with the crime and seized.

Most states have such laws. But the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has used civil asset forfeiture so wantonly and has made reclaiming the property so onerous that it outstrips the value of property seized, the complaint states.

Philadelphia seizes an average of $5.8 million worth of assets every year, compared to Kings County (Brooklyn) in New York and Los Angeles County, which, while both larger than Philadelphia, brought in $1.2 million in assets, according to the lawsuit.

Half of this money has gone to pay District Attorney's Office salaries, the complaint says.

"In statistical terms, the amount of Philadelphia's forfeiture revenue is almost 8 standard deviations above the mean," according to the complaint. "In laymen's terms, Philadelphia is as aberrant as a 7-foot-tall woman or an 8-foot-tall man."

Sourovelis and two named co-plaintiffs claims they all had property taken from them and were forced to navigate the DA's labyrinthine process to get it back.

Sourovelis's house was seized by the DA after his son, identified in the complaint as YS, was arrested for possessing drugs. After YS's arrest, while Sourvoelis was driving him to a drug rehabilitation program, the DA obtained an ex parte order to take possession of the home, the complaint states. Sourovelis was evicted and a lock was placed on the door.

To re-enter his home, Sourvelelis and his wife were brought to a hearing without a judge or jury and told by an assistant district attorney that they would have to relinquish any defense that they were innocent owners of the property and would have to bar YS from entering the home, the complaint states.

They have been allowed back into the home while they await another hearing.

His two co-plaintiffs both face loss of their homes, though they did not a commit any crime, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs claim the city systematically violates the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment.

They seek declaratory judgment that the way Philadelphia does this is unconstitutional, and injunction, return of all seized property and nominal damages of one dollar, plus attorney's fees.

They are represented by David Rudovsky of Kairys Rudovsky Messing & Feinberg.

Defendants include Mayor Michael Nutter, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, District Attorney R. Seth Williams, and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

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