PHILADELPHIA - City prosecutors have illegally seized millions of dollars' worth of homes, cars and cash to help fund their office, civil rights lawyers said Tuesday in announcing a class-action lawsuit.
The lawyers found that Philadelphia seizes nearly $6 million worth of property each year through the civil asset forfeiture program, which allows property to be seized if police believe it is linked to crimes, even before anyone is convicted.
Greek immigrant Christos Sourovelis and his wife, Markela, said they are fighting to keep their home after police charged their son in a $40 drug-possession case, even though the son has no ownership stake in the $300,000 home. They were forced out of their home for a week in May, and must now wade through what the lawsuit called a "rigged system" of endless proceedings run by prosecutors themselves as they try to save it, they said.
"I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't bother anybody," Sourovelis said at a news conference Tuesday organized by the Institute for Justice, the Arlington, Virginia, nonprofit law group that filed the lawsuit. His son's drug case remains pending, lawyers said.
District Attorney Seth Williams' office said it uses the law appropriately to address nuisance properties and protect law-abiding neighbors.
"It is important to remember that the distribution and use of illegal drugs are serious problems facing every corner of Philadelphia," the office said in a statement.
Civil forfeitures can occur without convictions based on a "preponderance of the evidence" standard - basically, a 51 percent finding. In contrast, criminal forfeitures typically follow convictions by a judge or jury.
Many other states have similar laws, but Philadelphia appears to be more aggressive in going after property linked to drug and other crimes, the lawyers said. They noted, for example, that Philadelphia seizes about five times as much property as Los Angeles.
From 2002 to 2012, the seized assets brought in $64 million in property and cash to the Philadelphia district attorney's office, including $1,000 homes, 3,200 vehicles and $44 million in cash, they said.
That represents a 20 percent revenue bonus above the office's budget appropriation, the lawyers said.