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How Police Can Seize Your Home Even If You’re Innocent

Chris and Markela Sourovelis [1]

Chris and Markela Sourovelis. Image source: Institute for Justice

Chris and Markela Sourovelis are suing Philadelphia, the district attorney’s office, and the police department to shut down one of the most aggressive forfeiture units in the country.

It all started one afternoon last May when Chris Sourvelis received a frantic phone call from his wife.

A few months after their son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs outside of their house in the Somerton section of the city, the police had returned. But this time they wanted something else — their home.

“I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t bother anybody,” Chris Sourovelis [2] told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “But we struggle from week to week not knowing what will happen.”

What started as a way for Philadelphia officials to seize property from drug traffickers has quickly evolved. Now Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture unit allows homes to be taken away from homeowners who haven’t even broken the law.

And Sourovelis isn’t the only one who feels it isn’t right to take away homes from those not convicted of crimes.

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Louis Rulli, a nationally recognized expert on civil forfeiture and a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor, believes that many innocent people have had their homes taken away.

“What we have is a law that was intended to go after drug kingpins and take away the tools of the trade, and instead we see it used against innocent folks, most of modest means,” Rulli says. “I don’t think that sits well with the American public.”

Two other homeowners whose houses have become targets of civil forfeiture actions from Philadelphia have also sued the city, the district attorney’s office and the police department.  According to their attorneys, they want to close down what they consider to be one of the nation’s most aggressive forfeiture units.

“The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has turned this tool into a veritable machine, devouring real and personal property from thousands of residents, many of whom are innocent, and converting that property into a $5.8 million average annual stream of revenue,” said Darpana Sheth [4], a lawyer with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm.

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According to the lawsuit [5] filed in a federal court in Philadelphia, the city makes millions each year pressuring often innocent property owners until they give in or make procedural missteps that can result in the loss of their property.

The plaintiffs want a judge to shut down the city’s civil forfeiture program on constitutional grounds. And their lawyers are seeking class-action status for the case.

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Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams, defended Philadelphia’s forfeiture unit, saying that it was important in the fight against drug trafficking. The targeted homes are often “rife with drug use, drug dealing and violence,” said Jamerson.

“Even more tragically, these activities invariably spill out into the streets and neighborhoods surrounding the property,” Jamerson told the Inquirer.

But seizing property from homeowners who haven’t broken the law isn’t just a problem for Philadelphia. In fact, it’s a problem brought to light just recently on the national level.

In July, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced S. 2644, the FAIR (Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration) Act [7], which would protect the Fifth Amendment rights of citizens and not allow property to be seized without due process of law. Under the current law, police officers may seize property even if the property owner has never been charged with a crime.

The FAIR Act would change the federal law and protect the rights of property owners by requiring that law enforcement agencies prove their case with legitimate evidence before seizing property.

As for Sourvelis’ family, they moved back into their home. However, a hearing date in his suit hasn’t been set. But Sourvelis plans to keep going to court until his family’s house is finally returned.

“I don’t think it’s right,” he said. “No owner of a house in Philadelphia deserves this.”

Do you think that law enforcement agencies have the right to seize property from homeowners who haven’t been convicted of a crime? Write your answer in the comments below.  

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