On May 8th, the home of Markela and Christos Sourovelis was seized by police. Why? Their son had been arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs outside of their home. Since it was authorized by the state in 1988, the Philadelphia police and District Attorney’s office have used the civil forfeiture system to take homes and other property from drug dealers. The Public Nuisance Task Force in Philadelphia makes an average of $5.8 million dollars a year by seizing personal property and real estate from Philadelphia residents. The program is designed to deprive drug dealers of the fruits of their crime.
The system is fraught with problems, however. Prosecutors are allowed to seize properties even if no one is actually charged with a crime, and because it is in the civil system of justice rather than the criminal system, cases do not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The property must only be proven to have more likely than not been involved in the perpetration of a crime. Occasionally, judges have approved the forfeiture of houses only for the property owner to later be acquitted of the suspected crimes.
Now, several homeowners are suing the city, alleging that this forfeiture system is unconstitutional. Markela and Christos Sourovelis are among those homeowners, and their attorneys are seeking to make this into a class action lawsuit. We will keep you updated as this case moves through the judicial system.