D.A. Drops Forfeiture Cases That Drew National Attention

Christos Sourovelis and Doila Welch will get to keep their homes.

Christos Sourovelis and the house he'll get to keep.

Christos Sourovelis and the house his family will get to keep.

The district attorney’s office has ended its attempts to seize the homes of two Philadelphia families who had sued over the city’s aggressive civil forfeiture practices.

The Institute for Justice, which had sued on behalf of Christos Sourovelis and Doila Welch to shut down the program, announced Thursday that the D.A. had dropped its forfeiture cases against the two.

“We are pleased that Christos and Doila’s families will be able to enjoy their homes for the holidays,” said Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the institute, in a press release.

Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture practices came under scrutiny in late 2012, when City Paper’s Isaiah Thompson wrote that the program brought $6 million a year in assets to the city’s law enforcement community. He explained that the law is intended to seize the assets of drug dealers to prevent the property from being used in crime.

The problem? The government doesn’t actually have to prove the property was used in a crime. And in many cases, it was only tangentially related to an alleged crime.

“In Philadelphia, the law has laid the framework for a civil asset forfeiture program that brings in upwards of $6 million a year from cases against thousands of Philadelphians, with little oversight of how cases are pursued or how profits are distributed,” Thompson wrote. “The Philadelphia D.A. pursues virtually every nickel seized by Philadelphia police officers; it does so without regard to the owner’s guilt or innocence; and it makes fighting to retrieve assets difficult and/or costly enough that few, innocent or not, will ever see their property returned.” (The forfeiture process in Philadelphia was in place even before the current D.A., Seth Williams, was in office, Thompson explained.

That led to cases like the one involving Christos Sourovelis, the Washington Free Beacon reports: “Police seized Sourovelis’ house in May after his son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs outside. The same day Sourovelis dropped his son off for court-ordered rehab treatment, the city kicked him and his wife out of it, even though there was no evidence they were aware of the drug activity.”

Welch, meanwhile, stood to lose her home because her estranged husband reportedly sold small amounts of marijuana without her knowledge.

The Institute for Justice said its lawsuit against Philadelphia’s forfeiture practices will continue, however, noting that the issue has received national attention: “Philadelphia’s program has received critical coverage from sources ranging from the Wall Street Journal editorial board to Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver, who said that “civil forfeiture laws have warped law enforcement priorities and perception, and nowhere is that more clear than in Philadelphia.”

Oliver’s segment actually does a pretty good job of explaining forfeiture, and how it’s used, here and elsewhere in the United States.