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Should parents lose house when son sells drugs?

A federal lawsuit has both D.A. and civil liberties advocates fuming.

Christos, left, and Markela Sourovelis in front of their Northeast Philadelphia home with their pit bull, Max, on Tuesday, September 16, 2014. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Christos, left, and Markela Sourovelis in front of their Northeast Philadelphia home with their pit bull, Max, on Tuesday, September 16, 2014. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )Read more

MORE THAN a month after a federal class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of Philadelphians whose homes were seized and sealed as part of the city's war on drugs, people on both sides are fuming.

The District Attorney's Office, which was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, contends that media coverage has warped the public's perceptions of what really happens in the city's civil-forfeiture program.

The lead plaintiff in the suit, homeowner Christos Sourovelis, is still angry that he and his family were kicked out of their well-maintained, $350,000 two-story home in Somerton for a week in May and that he could lose his house to forfeiture.

On Tuesday, a visibly upset Sourovelis, 52, said while sitting in his back yard - where he had built a Greek-style fountain with stones, burbling water and Greek statues - that he had no idea his son, Yianni Sourovelis, 22, was involved with heroin until his arrest at the family's home on March 27.

Weeks later, on May 8, cops came to their house with a seize-and-seal order, signed by a judge, and told Sourovelis' wife, Markela, that the family had to leave. Cops sealed the doors shut and padlocked the front door. Christos Sourovelis says he can't understand why his family was kicked out when he had nothing to do with drugs.

"Why you have to penalize my family?" said Sourovelis, a painter who owns his own business and is a native of Greece. "I don't do nothing. They go taking the houses away from people working hard in their lives."

Sourovelis, his wife and two daughters were able to return to their home about a week after it was sealed, but it was only after Sourovelis signed an agreement with an assistant district attorney that Yianni would not live in the house.

Beth Grossman, chief assistant district attorney of the D.A.'s Public Nuisance Task Force, and Tasha Jamerson, the office's spokeswoman, insisted last week that homes are seized and sealed and subjected to civil forfeiture only after evidence shows that the house is connected to drug activity.

Jamerson said the Sourovelis case "is the exception, not the rule" in civil forfeiture.

"The majority of these homes that this forfeiture affects in the neighborhoods aren't Somerton," she said. "It's Kensington, it's South Philly, where neighbors call and call and call because they've seen people going in and out of this home buying drugs, and sometimes it's an abandoned building."

"Forfeiture deters drug dealing," Grossman said.

At the time a resident is served a seize-and-seal order, the D.A.'s office does not need to show that the homeowner knew or consented to the drug activity, Grossman said.

In a forfeiture petition, "you're actually naming the property as the bad guy," said Grossman. "It's the activity that's surrounding the property itself" that's relevant.

Later, down the road, as the civil-forfeiture case proceeds in Common Pleas Court, the D.A.'s office needs to prove to a judge that the homeowner either knew of or consented to the drug activity before the house can actually be forfeited, the D.A.'s office said.

Grossman stressed that only 10 percent of homes that are served with seize-and-seal orders and subject to potential forfeiture are actually forfeited. In 2013, 34 homes were forfeited - 18 by default, meaning the owner couldn't be located, eight by agreement and eight after a trial, according to the D.A.'s office. The majority of the city's forfeiture income comes from forfeited cash linked to drug activity, not homes.

In the Sourovelis case, Grossman said, an investigation showed that on March 25, Yianni Sourovelis left the house and sold four packets of heroin to an undercover informant parked in a vehicle. Yianni had earlier bought the drug from his supplier outside the house.

Then, on March 27, cops went to serve a search warrant at the Sourovelis' house. According to Grossman, Markela Sourovelis initially refused to restrain the family's pit bull. Meanwhile, "her son is running upstairs and begins to flush narcotics down the toilet," Grossman said.

After the mother restrained the dog, "the officers run upstairs, the water is running in the toilet, and one of the officers sticks his hand down the toilet and what he is able to recover was an additional four packets of heroin," Grossman said.

Yianni Sourovelis was arrested and charged with possession with intent to deliver and related offenses.

Christos and Markela Sourovelis disputed that scenario. Christos was not home at the time, but Markela said about four plainclothes cops came to the house, opened the door and one had a gun to their pit bull Max's head.

She said she was afraid they were going to shoot Max, so she initially closed the door, but then let the cops in. She said she had no idea that her son Yianni had heroin in the house. Both parents said they didn't know Yianni was involved with the drug.

After his arrest, Yianni Sourovelis pleaded no contest and was allowed to enter a Drug Treatment Court program.

Darpana Sheth, an attorney at the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which filed the federal lawsuit against the city on behalf of the homeowners, said Monday that she and the other plaintiffs' attorneys are not disputing Yianni Sourovelis' drug crime. The main point, she said, is that the D.A.'s office is "punishing innocent homeowners all for the benefit of the bottom line."

Not so, says Grossman. It's about shutting down drug operations. "Do you want to live next to a drug dealer? Do you?"

Pennsylvania law permits civil forfeiture, which deters drug dealing, she said. People often get released from jail while awaiting their trial in drug cases.

"Think how demoralizing it is, in a broad sense, for neighbors to see the same person get back in the property 72 hours later and start it again," Grossman said. "Who looks out for the law-abiding people? Where is their voice?"

The plaintiffs' attorneys on Sept. 8 asked U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno to suspend the city's civil-forfeiture program.

They cited a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property, which says that unless there are "exigent circumstances" - meaning a situation in which immediate action is needed - the government needs to provide "notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard before seizing real property subject to civil forfeiture."

David Rudovsky, a local civil-rights lawyer who is also acting on behalf of the plaintiffs, contends the D.A.'s office is violating federal law by seizing people's homes without notice or any chance to be heard by a judge.

"Before you can seize the house on the theory the house is being used to facilitate drug action, the homeowner is entitled to a hearing," Rudovsky said.

George D. Mosee Jr. served as chief of the D.A.'s Forfeiture Unit in 1993. When the Supreme Court decision came down, he said last week, "we felt we were already complying with it."

"In each and every case when we seize property without a hearing, we determine if there are exigent circumstances," said Mosee, who is currently deputy district attorney of the D.A.'s Juvenile Division. The exigent circumstances is that "drugs are being sold from the property," Mosee said. "It should be made clear, when we seize the property, we seize it to stop the activity."

Meanwhile, Christos Sourovelis is to return to courtroom 478 tomorrow in the civil-forfeiture case.

"I'm not going to let them take my house," he said.