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District attorney backs off from taking citizens' homes

A federal lawsuit is still pending challenging the city’s civil forfeiture program

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

THE CIVIL forfeiture "money machine" run by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams may be getting shamed into submission.

Quietly yesterday, Williams' office agreed to dismiss civil-forfeiture proceedings against two Philadelphia families whose homes were in jeopardy of being seized because a family member was accused of selling drugs at the properties.

"If they don't have anything against you, they're supposed to [dismiss the case]. I didn't do anything wrong," said Somerton homeowner Christos "Chris" Sourovelis, 52.

Doila Welch, 47, whose South Philadelphia rowhouse is also home to her three children, brother and sister, was pleased.

"I'm happy they came to the decision to dismiss the case," she said. Welch, who is disabled, said others who are unfairly targeted by the city should "fight for your property, fight for your civil rights. Don't just sit there and take what they are dishing out."

She and Sourovelis are among four Philadelphians who, in August, filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the D.A.'s office seeking to rein-in its property-and-money guzzling civil-forfeiture program.

That lawsuit is moving forward to help the thousands of other innocent people ensnared by a program that was designed to catch and punish drug dealers, said Darpana Sheth, of the northern Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs.

"We won a battle but not the war. We still have to get a full ruling that the system that Philadelphia has implemented in civil forfeiture is unconstitutional," Sheth said.

The system, she said, is rigged against citizens by city prosecutors and police whose offices get to keep the millions in funds taken in civil forfeitures.

From 2002 to 2012, Philadelphia took in almost $6 million annually and $64 million in total in civil forfeiture revenue, Sheth said.

During that time, 1,172 homes and other real property, 3,290 automobiles and other vehicles and more than $44 million in cash were seized.

To illustrate the appetite of the city's forfeiture machine, Sheth noted that while Philadelphia's population is smaller than those of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Los Angeles County, it brings in twice as much civil forfeiture revenue as those jurisdictions combined.

Many who get targeted are never charged with crimes.

In Sourovelis' case, the D.A. made a grab for the home he shares with his wife and three children after his son, now 22, sold a small amount of drugs in front of the home in March. His son is now in a court-ordered drug treatment program, Sourovelis said.

Welch's problems resulted from her estranged husband - unbeknown to her - in February selling marijuana downstairs while she spent most of her time upstairs in bed, because of her disability.

The district attorney's office yesterday issued a statement supporting the forfeiture program.

"The class-action lawyers are trying to portray today's events as some sort of victory. The truth is that we resolve most of our real estate forfeiture actions by agreement, just as we are doing here, and we have been doing that since long before this lawsuit was filed.

"We do it because the purpose of the forfeiture process is to protect public safety and relieve neighborhoods of rampant drug dealing."