Philadelphia Forfeiture Program Lawsuit Advances

Illustration from the FBI’s asset-forfeiture webpage, a division of white-collar crime.

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – A federal judge judge refused to dismiss claims that Philadelphia owes 20 percent of its budget to an unconstitutional civil-forfeiture program.

Originally filed in 2014, the class action led by Christos Sourovelis contends that the city offers no due process before it auctions off jewelry, firearms or other private property that it has purportedly traced to criminal activity.

Calling Philadelphia’s program “unprecedented in scale,” the class says local prosecutors made more than $5 million in forfeiture revenue a year by seizing at least $90 million worth of property from 1987 to 2012. The most commonly seized item, according to the complaint, is cash, usually just a few hundred bucks.

Sourovelis says the city’s forfeiture program really got going in 2007 when it moved forfeiture proceedings to a courtroom in city hall that lacked a presiding judge, stenographer, court reporter or clerk of quarter sessions.

Prosecutors from the division of the District Attorney’s Office that filed and litigated the civil forfeiture petitions fully controlled the proceedings, according to the complaint.

Though the property owners were invited to these proceedings, the class says there were various procedural hurdles to give the city the upper hand.

If they failed to appear at the courtroom at 9 a.m., for example, the case would be marked for default judgment without any determination as to why the property owner did not appear.

It was also routine for prosecutors to relist civil proceedings an average of five times each, according to the complaint. The class says property owners had to appear each time or risk default of their property.

Though the city has changed its forfeiture program in the years since Sourovelis filed suit, and there was a partial settlement in 2015, the class still sees violations of the 14th Amendment.

They brought a second amendment complaint, which those who run the forfeiture program at the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania in turn moved  to dismiss.

The district, abbreviated in the ruling as FJD, argued that the case was mooted by its recent changes, specifically its posting of a GCR, or General Court Regulation, that has governed the program since July 25, 2016.

U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno disagreed on March 31.

“While there may be ‘no indication’ that the FJD will ‘abandon’ the GCR, there is also no indication that it will not; particularly if it again faces resource constraints,” the 47-page opinion states. “The FJD Defendants’ assertions that the FJD will not revert to the prior procedures are simply not enough to meet their ‘formidable burden’ of demonstrating that the previous civil forfeiture procedures will not reoccur.”

The class is represented by attorneys at Kairys Rudovsky Messing & Feinberg. Neither this law firm nor representatives for the city have returned phone calls requesting comment.

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