City’s Judicial District Must Now Defend Its Forfeiture Practices

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MEMBERS of “The Families of Phila.” have cause to celebrate. A federal judge has ordered our local courts to answer charges levied against it by Phila. homeowners charging the city’s mortgage-foreclosure practices have illegally forced hundreds out of their homes. TFOP members with similar cases, L-R: Johnny Young, Jameel El, Adisa Folami El, Crystal Stephen, Sheila Lloyd and Danyiell Wright. Photo by Wendell Douglas


The 1st Judicial Dist., long criticized for the way it handles civil forfeiture proceedings, finally has to answer charges filed by the Institute for Justice on behalf of four Philadelphia residents.

Federal Judge Eduardo C. Robreno has the 1st Dist.’s motion to dismiss the class action challenging its administration of civil forfeiture proceedings, filed in August 2014 by the Washington-based Institute for Justice on behalf of four Philadelphians.

Waving a flag of joy and relief are a host of homeowners in this city who, eight years ago, banded together under the umbrella of The Families of Philadelphia. Uniting them was a common bond. Each was losing a home or property through what they felt, and later discovered, were illegal practices, many of which were ignored by the judges of this city who routinely handled flawed requests to approve forfeitures.

Each had a sad tale to tell. No matter to whom they were referred for relief and support, no matter the evidence they accumulated that they had complied with requests from mortgagors, and entered into and honored new financial arrangements, their property was on a fast track to forfeiture.

Darpana Sheth, IJ’s senior and lead attorney on the case, said, “This decision makes clear in no uncertain terms that Philadelphia’s state court administrators must now defend their inadequate procedures that have systematically trampled on the rights of our clients and the rights of thousands of other property owners.”

Judge Robreno squarely rejected the 1st Judicial Dist.’s argument that IJ’s lawsuit should be dismissed because the district had recently changed some of its procedures. Judge Robreno ruled, “This is not like a new case, finding IJ’s complaint sufficiently alleged both “that the pre-October 2015 civil forfeiture procedures were unconstitutional” and “that the changes to the procedures have not fixed those deficiencies.”

Judge Robreno further rejected the 1st Judicial Dist.’s arguments that its procedures are constitutionally adequate, holding once more that “Plaintiffs have the better of [the] argument.”

The IJ claims, “The 1st Judicial Dist. and Philadelphia police and prosecutors have long failed to provide property owners with a prompt opportunity to get their property back. Meanwhile, individual property owners have been forced to attend as many as 10 or more proceedings, with many losing their property for missing a single one. And for almost a decade, the 1st Judicial Dist. let the city’s prosecutors run a forfeiture ‘courtroom,’ the infamous Courtroom 478, with no judge or jury.”

“Philadelphia tried to seize my home even though I did not do anything wrong, but the court system in Philadelphia did not give me a chance even to see a judge,” said Christos Sourovelis, the lead plaintiff in the case. “I am very happy the case will go on, because it means the court administrators are going to have to be accountable for the nightmare they put my family and others through.”

“Civil forfeiture laws are draconian and outrageous in many places in the country, but Philadelphia is in a league of its own in how it treats property owners,” explained Milad Emam, attorney at the IJ. “Philadelphia has seized over $64 million from its residents in an 11-year forfeiture machine that must be dismantled.”

The Philadelphia Public Record for the past two years has periodically reported on problems suffered by the members of The Families of Philadelphia, detailing what they cited as illegal procedures leading to their homes being placed on sheriff sales.

Crystal Stephens, 56, has been one of the victims. For the past 27 years, she has lived in her Northern Liberties home which she owns. She found herself battling her mortgage company, which had refused to lower her rates when they had taken a big dip nationally.

She was among several who testified before City Council at a hearing chaired by Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. as to her arduous and costly efforts to save her home. Today, her case sits in the State’s Superior Court.

Despite this, her property is being processed for Sheriff Sales this May 2.

Sheriff Jewell Williams, who has seen cases such as hers sent to him to be auctioned, says he and his staff have offered as much assistance as they were able, pointing her and others to where help might be available. But, bound by state law, his office has to process those properties for sale, unless stopped by agreement or court order.

Johnny Young, who is a spokesman for the group, has long cited the federal laws which were being given short shrift by the Philadelphia courts. He said The Families of Philadelphia collectively has put over eight years of research into cases involving its members. He believes he will provide the Institute with more proof of misconduct and deceptive legal practices by some law firms which have stolen property from Philadelphia homeowners.

“Soon,” he adds, “but unfortunately not in time to save the homes of many Philadelphians, the Feds will demand and make sure remedial changes are put in place, ending the travesties being inflicted on the poor victims caught in this web spun by the courts and some law firms.”

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