In Pennsylvania, as well as a number of other states, there is a little-known legal device called civil forfeiture that allows police and law enforcement agencies to seize both real and personal property from an individual without ever needing to charge the individual with a crime. That’s because, according to the law, it’s not the person who is guilty of the crime but rather the property itself. This has given rise to unusual civil actions that puts the burden of proof on a person to prove their innocence in order to retrieve their items.
Even though this practice is perfectly legal here in our state, some residents believe that civil forfeiture laws violate a citizen’s Fourth Amendment right to due process. These residents felt so strongly about this belief that they filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in August. They claim that the district attorney’s office and the Philadelphia police are abusing civil forfeiture to pad police budgets and justifying this abuse by claiming that it is aiding in the war on drugs.
Some here in West Chester may have heard about the case Sourovelis v. the City of Philadelphia, which the court still has yet to make a decision on. The case is significant because it raises an important question for the courts to answer: is civil forfeiture really helping police mitigate drug crimes in the state or are police overstretching the law and actually violating people’s civil rights?
This isn’t the first time this question has been raised. In fact, in the 1996 case of Bennis v. Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court was forced to consider if civil forfeiture violated a person’s right to due process, finally ruling that such seizures are not unconstitutional provided the property seized was an “instrumentality of crime.”
But this creates a gray area of the law that has long been argued about by justices from the state level all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s possible that Sourovelis v. the City of Philadelphia will become another one of these arguable cases, though the hope is that a favorable resolution will be found somewhere down the road.
Sources: Forbes, “Time For Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws To Meet The Same Fate As Jim Crow,” George Leef, Sept. 12, 2014
watchdog.org, “Week in review: Lawsuit targets civil forfeiture laws in Pennsylvania,” Andrew Staub, Aug. 29, 2014