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D.A.'s Office reaches partial settlement in forfeiture suit

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has agreed to change two of the most scrutinized aspects of its civil forfeiture program - a $6-million-a-year juggernaut aimed at taking cash and property out of the hands of drug dealers.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has agreed to change two of the most scrutinized aspects of its civil forfeiture program - a $6-million-a-year juggernaut aimed at taking cash and property out of the hands of drug dealers.

In federal court filings this week, city lawyers agreed to limit their practice of barring homeowners from properties tied up in forfeiture proceedings until the case has made its way before a judge.

Prosecutors also said they would no longer enforce several controversial requirements routinely included in deals struck with property owners to settle forfeiture cases. Those include restrictions blocking relatives accused of crimes from living at the property, granting the state pre-approval on all new owners or tenants, and limiting the rights of owners to fight off future forfeiture efforts.

The policy shifts come amid recent calls from some lawmakers to overhaul Pennsylvania's forfeiture laws, and growing national scrutiny of the city's forfeiture program, which critics say has too often caught innocent people in its dragnet. Last year, four Philadelphia property owners whose houses or cars had been seized filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court challenging several aspects of the program.

The proposed changes were outlined in a settlement agreement in that case that would partially resolve the plaintiff's complaints.

Still, many issues raised by the lawsuit remain unresolved, said Darpana Sheth, a lawyer with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, who filed the federal suit along with lawyers from the Center City civil rights law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

Chief among them: where the proceeds of forfeited property end up. Currently, profits from seized property supplement budgets for city police and prosecutors - an arrangement critics say provides a profit motive for continued seizures.

"Facing considerable pressure, the city has only agreed to resolve two of the claims after 10 months," Sheth said Wednesday. "It remains intransigent on the core problem: The perverse financial incentive the police and District Attorney's Office have in civil forfeiture cases."

State law allows authorities to seize homes and other assets believed to be connected to drug activity, even if no one associated with the property is ever charged with a crime.

Sheth's clients allege in their lawsuit that their houses were targeted even though the properties were only tangentially connected to illegal activity.

Of the lawsuit's four named plaintiffs, three had their houses threatened after relatives were accused of dealing drugs on the property. None have been accused of involvement in a crime themselves.

Lead plaintiff Christos Sourovelis, 52, and his wife, Markela, were kicked out of their $350,000 house in Somerton in May 2014 without notice after police arrested their 22-year-old son, Yianni, for selling drugs outside.

The group is seeking class-action status that would include anyone whose property had become the subject of a forfeiture proceeding.

District Attorney Seth Williams has defended his office's use of state forfeiture laws, calling them an effective tool "making it harder for dealers to operate by removing their profits and profit motive."

"Don't believe the claims that we are just snatching up property, mostly homes and autos, owned by random individuals who have nothing to do with drug dealing," Williams wrote in a recent column in The Inquirer.

Though city prosecutors agreed to a number of new policies in the settlement proposal filed this week, they insist they did not violate the rights of anyone involved in the property seizures.

The Sourovelises, however, maintain they had no knowledge of their son's dabbling in the drug trade before they were kicked out of their home.

They first learned of the city's effort to take their property from a notice evicting them - more than a month after their son's arrest - while the forfeiture case proceeded in court.

Such notices, known as "seize and seal orders," were designed to allow authorities to secure a property targeted for forfeiture until a judge could make a final ruling.

They were only intended to be used in extreme circumstances, such as when persistent illegal activity is occurring at the location. But in Philadelphia, prosecutors sought "seize and seal" orders as a matter of routine.

Of the 147 forfeiture cases filed against houses in the city last year, nearly 85 percent began with a "seize and seal" order, according to an Institute for Justice analysis.

This week's settlement agreement proposes a number of changes to how "seize and seal" orders would be used in the future.

Ed McCann, Williams' first assistant, said in a court filing this year that since October 2014 - two months after the filing of the civil rights suit - he has reviewed all of the office's applications for "seize and seal" orders. None has been submitted for judicial approval since September of that year, he said.

Future applications would require "specific, particularized, and credible facts" that the city's interest in a property would be threatened by allowing its owner continued access while proceedings in the forfeiture case move forward.

"The mere fact that law enforcement observed controlled substances present at a property, that law enforcement observed controlled substances being sold or distributed at a property, that a property was purchased with criminal proceeds, or that a property is considered deteriorated does not constitute exigent circumstances," the settlement proposal reads.

The District Attorney's Office would withdraw any standing "seize and seal" orders and refile them under the new requirements.

City prosecutors have also agreed not to enforce several requirements once included as standard in legal documents used to settle forfeiture cases.

The Sourovelises were allowed back in their home a week after their eviction, but only after agreeing that their son would not be permitted to live there.

Three months later, prosecutors agreed to drop their forfeiture case if the family agreed to give up its right to fight any future effort to seize the property, and to give the state power to reject any future tenants or owners of the house.

The family refused to sign, based on advice from lawyers who deemed the restrictions unconstitutional. The District Attorney's Office dropped its forfeiture case anyway, four months after the family filed its suit in federal court.

City lawyers said in court filings this week that prosecutors have stopped including such restrictions in settlement agreements as of April.

In a court filing this month, lawyers for the District Attorney's Office said they continued to negotiate other changes that could address the lawsuit's remaining issues, including the time it takes the average forfeiture complaint to make its way before a judge.

But there is one complaint, Sheth said Wednesday, on which lawyers for both sides have found little ground for agreement - the direct allocation of forfeiture proceeds to the Police Department and District Attorney's Office.

"The city and D.A.'s Office is continuing to cling to the notion that it is OK to police for profit," she said. "Until the city agrees to acknowledge that core issue, we will continue to litigate in court."

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