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Philly420: Civil asset forfeiture, the other marijuana penalty

Today it was announced Philadelphia's District Attorney Seth Williams has stopped trying to take away Doila Welch's home. Unbeknownst to Welch, her son was selling small amounts of marijuana. Beyond jail time for distribution offenders the city has taken away millions of dollars in material assets from residents. Philly has one of the most aggressive Civil Asset Forfeiture programs in the country, one that has come under increasing scrutiny.

The story was first broken open by Isaiah Thompson in a 2012 series called "The Cash Machine." This year the program started to get national attention. The Wall St Journal focused on Philly and so did television host John Oliver in a scathing segment on Last Week Tonight.

The big turnaround from the DA is stemming from a federal lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice to stop the forfeiture practice. Welch and Christos Sourovelis are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Both families found out their cases were dropped yesterday.

"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 for Justice, which is representing the plaintiffs in their challenge to Philadelphia's program. "Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many other Philadelphia families. Philadelphia law enforcement continues to use its system of robo-forfeitures to pad its budgets with millions in unaccountable funds by stripping innocent people of their rights and property."

This was the second victory this week for Philly families losing their homes over small amounts of marijuana. PennLive reported:

Despite some internal disagreement, Commonwealth Court on Wednesday voided a Philadelphia judge's order that forfeited a city widow's house and minivan over $90 worth of marijuana sales committed by her son.

At least one of those sales resulted from the city police Narcotics Field Unit's decision to send a confidential informant to Elizabeth Young's house to arrange to buy pot from her son.

Young was in the hospital at the time and like Doila Welch, says she did not know about the marijuana sales. Young's son was also coerced into using the home for the transaction by one of the narcotics cops who are now under indictment for corruption. The case against Young's property was not entirely thrown out, but sent back to Philadelphia Court for reconsideration.

These types of seizures are conducted under state law, specifically the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act. Local law enforcement, including the DA, keep all of the assets seized. Originally conceived as a tool against big time drug dealers, the harsh tactic has been used more often against small time sellers... like those turning over a few dime bags of marijuana. While the program in Philly has received the most attention the practice is common across Pennsylvania.

Now that Philadelphia has decriminalized marijuana possession and Governor-elect Tom Wolf is calling for statewide decrim it is time for the forfeiture ability to end over small amounts of marijuana as well.

If legislators in Harrisburg don't fix the law hopefully the Institute for Justice lawsuit will stop the practice once and for all. No one should be made homeless over a little bit of weed.

Chris Goldstein, an associate editor at Freedom Leaf magazine, smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML has been covering cannabis news for over a decade. Contact Goldstein at or on Twitter @freedomisgreen.