In a bid to end a class-action lawsuit against the city, Philadelphia officials are seeking a federal judge's approval of a voluntary permanent ban on the controversial use of civil-forfeiture proceeds to fund police and prosecutors.
With one exception, the city has voluntarily stopped using property seized in criminal cases to fund the District Attorney's Office and the Police Department.
City lawyers late Friday afternoon filed a request with U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno to approve a permanent injunction on Philadelphia's using the proceeds for law enforcement, arguing that it would satisfy a stated demand by the plaintiffs for such prohibition. As part of the order, the city would deny liability and that it violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs or anyone else in the class-action suit.
Kathleen Martin, first assistant for the District Attorney's office, said in a statement that the funds would instead be used to pay for drug treatment, drug-abuse prevention, and to alleviate blight in communities ravaged by the drug trade.
"By agreeing to discontinue the expenditure of forfeiture proceeds on law enforcement needs in the District Attorney's Office and Police Department — even though that is permitted by statute — we eliminate once and for all any concern of improper motives for forfeiture," Martin said.
Lawyers at the Institute for Justice, the Virginia-based nonprofit that filed the suit in 2014 on behalf of plaintiffs in Philadelphia, could not be reached for comment Friday night.
According to the city's court filing, the city offered two months ago to resolve the suit with the permanent injunction, but the plaintiffs rejected the proposal.
In an opinion piece published Wednesday in the Inquirer, Milad Emam, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, wrote that the organization was continuing its class-action suit because Pennsylvania law still allows for proceeds from forfeitures to be used by law enforcement "to pad their budgets and salaries," and that the law allows for people to lose property to forfeiture without ever being charged or convicted of a crime.
The plaintiffs in the Philadelphia case include Chris and Markela Sourovelis. "After police officers arrested their youngest son for selling $40 of drugs without their knowledge, police returned to seize their home and evict them," Emam wrote in his opinion piece.
"The Sourovelises had no warning or ability to contest eviction. In order to return to their home, prosecutors in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office forced them to sign an agreement permanently banning their son from their home and waiving their rights to challenge the DA's actions in court," Emam wrote.
Gov. Wolf recently signed into law forfeiture reforms, but Emam said the changes fall short.
"As long as forfeiture proceeds can fund Pennsylvania law enforcement's salaries and other benefits, forfeiture will continue to be out of control," Emam wrote.