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Suit Claims Philadelphia's Seizure Practices Are Unconstitutional

By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) --- The Institute for Justice filed a federal class action claiming the city of Philadelphia's practice of seizing millions in cash, cars and houses every year is unconstitutional.

"It's a horrible, horrible lose your home," says Markela Sourovelis, "it's a constant battle- come this month, come that's scary."

Her husband Christos is one of three plaintiffs named in the class action. The Sourovelis' claim the city seized their $300-thousand dollar home in May because their son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside of the house. But the Sourovelis- have not been charged with any crime.

"I didn't do nothing wrong...I didn't bother anybody, but still they came in and moved us out of our house" says Christos Sourovelis, "I have rights and we are still fighting for our house- no owners of houses in Philadelphia deserve that."

"Civil forfeiture is nothing more than state sanctioned theft," says Darpana Sheth, lead attorney on the case.
She says Philadelphia's forfeiture process puts the burden on the owner to prove their property is not connected to a drug crime. She says the program brings in $6 million a year-- twice the amount of Brooklyn and LA combined, with all the proceeds going into law enforcement coffers.

"It goes to pay salaries, including to prosecutors who wield an enormous amount of discretion to bring forfeiture claims," says Sheth, who works for Institute for Justice, based in Arlington, Va.

The suit claims property owners do not get to go before a judge before their property is seized, which violates the due process clause of the constitution.

"We haven't seen a judge," says Markela Sourovelis, "we keep getting sent to this 478 room and for months, we go there and fill out papers."

"Courtroom 478 is no courtroom at all," says Sheth, "there's no judge, there's no jury, there's not even a court reporter to transcribe these so-called hearings-- instead it's the prosecutors that run Courtroom 478."

The class action alleges that prosecutors control the process, many times forcing property owners to waive their constitutional rights and/or defenses in future proceedings in order to have access to their home while the forfeiture case is pending.

The suit names three plaintiffs, including Doila Welch and Norys Hernandez, and names the District Attorney's Office and City of Philadelphia as defendants.

The Philadelphia DA's office issued a statement saying the distribution and use of illegal drugs are serious problems facing every street corner of Philadelphia....and that its Public Nuisance Task Force follows the law "to protect the rights of all involved."

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