This story was originally published by the WND News Center.
Two court-approved consent decrees have ended a years-long court fight over a program in Philadelphia where authorities would act as their own judges and confiscate properties – like vehicles and homes – from residents.
The case has been handled by the Institute for Justice, which revealed that the end meant victims were paid compensation, the program is disassembled, and the money left over was given to local charities.
It took nearly a decade, but the IJ said a lawsuit originally launched by a Philadelphia family trying to save the family home has concluded with the city dismantling its "abusive forfeiture program."
"At the beginning of 2021, the Institute for Justice (IJ) secured final approval of two consent decrees to end a class action lawsuit on behalf of people who had homes, cash, and cars wrongfully seized. While one decree established reforms to prevent abuse in the future, the other created a $3 million fund to compensate forfeiture victims," the legal team explained.
Some 2,400 people got cash awards that averaged more than $1,400 and then the IJ chose various charities in Philadelphia to take the approximately $282,000 that was left unclaimed.
"For years, Philadelphia seized and forfeited millions of dollars from individuals through a cruel and unjust legal process. It took a major federal class action lawsuit to bring the mistreatment to an end," explained IJ Senior Attorney Rob Frommer. "The funds which could not be given back to individuals will be going to help those communities in Philadelphia most harmed by these practices."
It all got its start when Chris Sourovelis and his family nearly lost their home to Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine.
"Like many others, they found themselves trapped in a process where prosecutors ran 'hearings' out of a courtroom at city hall and acted as judges to take homes, cash, and cars. The proceeds then went into a fund controlled by police and prosecutors, pulling in up to $6 million a year. The Sourovelis family, along with several other Philadelphians, filed their lawsuit in 2014," IJ said. After a failed city attempt to dismiss the suit and the certification of a class of more than 20,000 property owners, the city agreed to dismantle its forfeiture machine and compensate victims.
Among the changes that are being made is more limits on when Philadelphia police can seize money and other property for forfeiture, better notices to owners, ensuring that judges control the proceedings, and the creation of a hearing where property owners can demand the immediate return of their property.
"Philadelphia was one of the worst examples of how civil forfeiture turns American justice on its head to enrich police and prosecutors," said Scott Bullock. chief counsel for IJ. "This was an important case that not only shut down the machine law enforcement created to enrich itself but also secured compensation for victims. Unfortunately, civil forfeiture destroys lives and even a successful lawsuit can never give the victims full justice."
The IJ also is fighting against abusive forfeiture practices in Texas, Nevada, Indiana, and at various airports.