An anti-civil forfeiture group and a civil rights law firm have teamed up to sue the city over its civil forfeiture practices. The Institute for Justice — the libertarian, anti-civil forfeiture group — has even set up a pretty-but-distracting website about the civil rights lawsuit and how civil forfeiture works in Philadelphia.
Criminal forfeiture happens when the government seizes assets after a person is convicted of a crime. Generally, it is a punitive act against the convicted offender. But civil forfeiture can happen in the absence of a criminal conviction — indeed, it can happen before a trial even takes place. In civil forfeiture, the government sues the property, alleging the item or items were gained due to illegal activity.
In 2011, the Institute of Justice writes on its site, Philadelphia filed 6,560 petitions to acquire the cash or property of city residents. Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, filed 200 such petitions between 2008 and 2011.
Civil forfeiture is used all over the country. Philadelphia's appears to be unique, however. A 2012 City Paper article revealed the city made an average of $550 per forfeiture in 2010. Federal guidelines, which Philadelphia doesn't have to follow, sets a $2,000 minimum on seized property.
The lawsuit alleges the city takes and sells at auction an average of 100 properties a year. In contrast, the next three largest counties in Pennsylvania took just a dozen properties through civil forfeiture from 2008 to 2011.
Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing and Feinberg is the law firm suing the city on behalf of three named defendants, who could lose their houses even though none have been charged with a crime. The federal civil rights suit accuses the city of depriving its residents of due process, and seeks a shutdown of the civil forfeiture process in Philadelphia.
Read a copy of the lawsuit below: