pennsylvania does it again

upside down house

The more I learn about how things work in Pennsylvania, the more I’m glad I don’t live anywhere near that state. If any jurisdiction is likely to misuse the laws of seizure and forfeiture, and use them for a corrupt purpose, that jurisdiction is likely to be Pennsylvania (and especially Philadelphia).

Last week a reader sent me a link to a CNN story reporting that a Philadelphia couple say police seized their home due to their son’s first drug offense.

One day this past March, without warning, the government took a house away from its owners, Christos and Markella Sourovelis, even though the couple was never charged with a crime or accused of any wrongdoing. Police just showed up at the house and arrested the couple’s 22-year-old son, Yianni, on drug charges—selling $40 worth of heroin. Authorities say he was selling drugs out of the home. The Sourvelises say they had no knowledge of any involvement their son might have had with drugs.
A month-and-a-half later police came back—this time to seize their house, forcing the Sourvelises and their children out on the street that day. Authorities came with the electric company in tow to turn off the power and even began locking the doors with screws, the Sourvelises say. Authorities won’t comment on the exact circumstances because of pending litigation regarding the case.
Police and prosecutors came armed with a lawsuit against the house itself. It was being forfeited and transferred to the custody of the Philadelphia District Attorney. Authorities said the house was tied to illegal drugs and therefore subject to civil forfeiture.
In two years, nearly 500 families in Philadelphia had their homes or cars taken away by city officials, according to records from Pennsylvania’s attorney general.
Authorities use a civil forfeiture law that allows them to seize people’s property when that property is even alleged to be connected to the sale of illegal drugs.
CNN legal analyst and civil attorney, Brian Kabateck, who has represented clients in civil forfeiture cases says the law is intended to protect the public. “It discourages crime and it takes the ill-gotten gains away from the bad people.”
But in Pennsylvania not all people who have their property taken away are charged with a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, the civil law allows authorities to seize property without the owner ever being convicted or even charged.
In some states like North Carolina property can be forfeited only if the property owner is actually convicted of a crime, but this is not so in Pennsylvania and other states.Civil liberties attorneys with the Institute for Justice, who recently filed a class action lawsuit against Philadelphia authorities for abusing the law, say, “Civil forfeiture is something that is an assault upon fundamental notions of private property ownership and due process.”In Pennsylvania, the City of Brotherly Love is far and away the most aggressive in the state when it comes to people’s property. Over a four-year period, Allegheny County, the second largest county in Pennsylvania, filed about 200 petitions for civil forfeiture. Philadelphia filed nearly 7,000 petitions in one year alone, according to the class action lawsuit, in which the Sourvelises are plaintiffs, along with other Philadelphia citizens.Philadelphia officials seized more than 1,000 houses, about 3,300 vehicles and $44 million in cash, totaling $64 million in civil forfeitures over a 10-year period, according to the lawsuit.The very authorities taking the property appear to be profiting from it, according to Pennsylvania state records. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office says about $7 million went straight to the salaries for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office and the police department in just three years. In that same time period, records show the DA’s office spent no money on community-based drug and crime-fighting programs, according to the Philadelphia AG’s office.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office said it seizes property “only as a last resort,” and added that it is limited in what it can currently say because of the pending litigation.

“In most cases the Public Nuisance Task Force doesn’t pursue forfeiture because the underlying issue with the real estate is resolved when a settlement agreement is reached with the property owner in which he or she agrees to take reasonable efforts to prevent future narcotics dealing from the property.”

The DA’s office also says it works directly with citizens, the police, government agencies, and community groups in an effort to abate or close drug properties.

Civil forfeiture can be used on the federal or state level. Only eight states—Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Indiana, Vermont, North Carolina, Ohio and North Dakota—require seized funds be placed in a neutral account. Other states allow law enforcement to directly profit from the civil forfeitures or put proceeds into a special crime fighting fund.

In some states, like Pennsylvania, the burden is on the property owner to prove their innocence. The Sourvelises say they had to go to a courtroom and fight to get their home back where, instead of facing a judge, they faced a prosecutor from the DA’s office.

There was no courtroom or judge, Christos Sourvelis says. “There’s just one guy telling us to sign these papers. That’s it.”

After eight days of sleeping on a family member’s couch, the Sourvelises were let back into their house, but only on the guarantee they would ban their son from the house—a heartbreaking decision, they say. (Their son pleaded no contest to the drug charges.)

Still fighting the city to resolve their case and stay in their home permanently, Markella Sourovelis says: “To me I’m home, but I feel violated at this point. I’m doing things in my house, but I worry is it always going to be my house? Are they going to take it one day like that?”

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office said it strictly follows the state law in an effort to crack down on drug abuse.

“In these efforts we will follow applicable law to protect the rights of those involved—not only drug dealers and those associated with them—but the law-abiding citizens who are negatively affected by them.”

Says Sourovelis: “I’m a working guy. I work every day, six days a week, even seven if I have to.

“I was so upset thinking somebody’s going to take my house for nothing. That makes me crazy,” Sourovelis says, shaking his head.


The above post is a lightly-edited story written by Cable News Network and appearing on the website of Fox 31 of Denver.


Groove of the Day

 Listen to Toby Keith performing “That’s My House”


4 Responses to “pennsylvania does it again”

  1. 1 Frank Manning
    September 9, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    People like those malignant social parasites in the Philly DA’s office are the reason the French invenrted the guillotine.

    • September 10, 2014 at 2:46 am

      Sorry, Frank, but it was not exactly for this reason that we invented the guillotine. It was designed to apply the death penalty in a more ‘human’ way to sentenced people and remove the executions by all other ways, considered as cruel, in use at the time. Not to punish the immorality and awfulness of peoples like those who populate the Philadelphia DA’s Office and misuse the laws which, in a normal application, are justified. At the time, we had the bagnes for thieves like these people.

      The seizure of profits or properties obtained as a result of criminal activity is a normal procedure and is applied all over the World. Depriving a criminal from the benefits of its illegal activity is a normal punishment. But such seizures should concern only the convinced felon, not its non-involved relatives. And the money collected by this way should go to the State, not to an Office or a Police Department. This money firstly should be used in welfare or prevention programs, not to pay salaries of DA Office employees or police officers. Any other use of these funds aimed at the common good is a diversion and opens the door to countless abuse under the guise of law.

      • 3 Frank Manning
        September 10, 2014 at 6:34 pm

        I apologize, mon ami! When I cite history in ironic ways to make a polemical point I usually keep within the bounds of historical accuracy. I hope you got my point, though. Petty bureaucrats who warp and distort the law and brutalize ordinary citizens for personal (or at least office) gain should face the ultimate penalty our society can inflict upon an especially malevolent wrongdoer.

        And I fully agree with you on how seized wealth should be utilized.

      • September 11, 2014 at 1:18 am

        Don’t apologize, my friend, I understand your point of view and I appreciated its irony. I fully share your point of view with regard to rogue officials and harsh sanctions that would hit those who abused the laws at the expense of the honest citizens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: