A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the City by the Institute for Justice and a group of Philadelphians seeks to end the Civil forfeiture laws in Philadelphia, which allow law enforcement officials to seize private property, sell it and pocket the proceeds—even if the property owner is never charged with a crime.
Presently property owners who find out that Philadelphia is threatening to take their cash, cars and even homes must go to Courtroom 478 in City Hall. But Courtroom 478 isn’t a courtroom at all: there is no judge or jury, just the prosecutors who run the show. Owners who ask if they need a lawyer are frequently told that one isn’t necessary, only to then be given a stack of complicated legal documents they must fill out under oath. Time and time again, property owners must return to Courtroom 478 to answer questions. If they miss a single appearance, they can lose their property forever.
Philadelphia’s police and prosecutors get to keep the forfeiture revenue making up 20 percent of the District Attorney’s Office’s annual budget with 40 percent of those proceeds going to salaries, including the salaries of the police and prosecutors doing the seizing.
Darpana Sheth, of the Institute for Justice, stated “Over a ten-year period police and prosecutors took in over $64 million in forfeiture proceeds—with $25 million going toward their salaries. The city’s residents are not ATMs.”
“Civil forfeiture needs to end not just in Philadelphia, but across the United States,” said I.J. Senior Attorney Scott Bullock. “Allowing law enforcement to keep the proceeds of forfeited property gives them a perverse financial incentive to use civil forfeiture. No one in the U.S. should lose their property without being convicted of, or even charged with, any crime. As Philadelphia shows, fair and impartial law enforcement cannot exist so long as we allow this policing for profit.”
On the other side of the suit, District Attorney Seth Williams said “The forfeiture of property by our Public Nuisance Task Force (PNTF), addresses the distribution and use of illegal drugs as serious problems facing every corner of Philadelphia. Not only do such activities pose great harm to those individuals addicted to drugs and their families, they also can become nuisances to the larger community.
“This is frequently the case when residential or business properties are used in narcotics distribution. The results are the same: these places are rife with drug use, drug dealing, and violence. Even more tragically, these activities invariably spill out into the streets and neighborhoods surrounding the property. Decent, law-abiding people suffer greatly as their quality of life plummets, their physical safety is threatened and their property values decrease.”