The Institute for Justice, a civil libertarian leaning law firm, has filed a class action law suit with the assistance of law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg against the civil forfeiture actions taken by Philadelphia police and prosecutors. I have written before on the problems of civil asset forfeiture cases. Contrary to the standard of innocent until proven guilty, in a civil asset forfeiture case one must prove that their property was not involved in the commission of a crime.
The City of Philadelphia is has been especially aggressive in pursuing civil forfeiture cases against individuals who many times have not even been charged with a crime. Philadelphia has a perverse incentive to pursue these cases and make it as difficult as possible on individuals to defend their property rights. The Institute for Justice explains:
Property owners who find out that Philadelphia is threatening to take their cash, cars and even homes must go to Courtroom 478 in City Hall. But Courtroom 478 isn’t a courtroom at all: there is no judge or jury, just the prosecutors who run the show. Owners who ask if they need a lawyer are frequently told that one isn’t necessary, only to then be given a stack of complicated legal documents they must fill out under oath. Time and time again, property owners must return to Courtroom 478—up to ten or more times in some cases— to answer questions and prove their property was never involved in a crime. If they miss a single appearance, they can lose their property forever.
Making matters worse, Philadelphia’s police and prosecutors get to keep and use everything that the machine snatches up. Philadelphia’s population is smaller than Brooklyn, New York’s and Los Angeles County’s, but Philadelphia brings in twice as much forfeiture revenue as the two—combined. Forfeiture revenue equals almost 20 percent of the District Attorney’s Office’s annual budget and the city spends nearly 40 percent of those proceeds on salaries, including the salaries of the very police and prosecutors doing the seizing.
“Philadelphia’s forfeiture scheme is especially outrageous. It allows the District Attorneys to pad their budget with millions of dollars in unaccountable funds by stripping innocent residents of their rights and property,” said IJ attorney and lead counsel on the case, Darpana Sheth. “Over a ten-year period police and prosecutors took in over $64 million in forfeiture proceeds—with $25 million going toward their salaries. The city’s residents are not ATMs.”
The Institute for Justice has decided to fight for the rights of property owners in Philadelphia and are planning to file suit against other municipalities that engage in onerous civil forfeiture cases. Here is to hoping the IJ can prevail and stop this practice by municipalities to pad their own pockets. Here is a video from the IJ on the problem with civil asset forfeiture cases in Philadelphia.