Philadelphia found an amazing source of revenue: it has netted an average of $5.8 million annually in the last decade by taking property they suspect is involved in a crime, according to a class-action lawsuit filed this week.
The flood of funds might not continue forever, though.
The suit claims the city's asset forfeiture program is overly aggressive and violates constitutional rights.
"This is not all coming from a few drug kingpins," said Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, the group behind the lawsuit. "What's really happening is Philadelphia is targeting ordinary citizens."
The lawsuit claims Philadelphia confiscates far more property than other municipalities. Los Angeles County, with a population more than 6.5 times that of Philadelphia, garnered $1.2 million in seizures, according to the complaint.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office said in a statement that it pursues asset forfeiture cases "judiciously" and that "the distribution and use of illegal drugs are serious problems facing every corner of Philadelphia."
In civil asset forfeiture, a government body files a lawsuit against property it alleges was involved in the commission of a crime; cars, houses and sums of money are actually named as defendants, like in "United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins," an exemplary case unearthed by The New Yorker's Sarah Stillman.
The owner of the property doesn't need to be convicted of a crime, meaning law enforcement doesn't necessarily have to prove its case to take the assets. A standard equivalent to "probable cause" is enough to justify a forfeiture in some states. The people retrieving their goods then need to prove that they weren't involved in a crime, a reversal of the "innocent until proven guilty" maxim applied in a criminal case.
Government officials often have a perverse incentive to continue asset forfeiture programs, according to Sheth. In Philadelphia, the district attorney's office, which administers the program, uses seized funds to supplement the payroll for its attorneys, she said.
Back in 2000, Congress recognized the potential for abuses of asset forfeiture laws when it passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) to help rein in the program. But the law needs to go farther, according to Sheth. Assets seized by the federal government still go directly to the Department of Justice, and not into a general fund with congressional oversight, and the figures are substantial — $6 billion in the past two years. Few states have adopted CAFRA-style laws.
There's no shortage of nightmarish cases across the country where citizens have struggled to reclaim property from authorities.
Christos Sourovelis is a prime example, according to the complaint. His son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs outside of their family home in Somerton, a suburban-feeling neighborhood in the city's Far Northeast section. Police seized the home a month later, evicting the family and padlocking the door.
After a court hearing, he and his wife were allowed to return, but the couple were asked to agree to certain terms, namely, to bar their son from returning to the house. The case is still ongoing.
"I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't bother anybody," the 52-year-old Sourovelis told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Tuesday. "But we struggle from week to week not knowing what will happen."
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.