The idea of police and prosecutors confiscating the property of criminals began logically: A bank robber shouldn’t be able to keep the money he stole or anything he bought with it.

But that has evolved into prosecutors in Philadelphia confiscating property before a conviction, or even without one. And using the proceeds for their own salaries.

The Institute for Justice decided to take action, suing the city over its practices.

IJ announced Tuesday a major settlement with the city, which will end “the city’s draconian civil forfeiture machine.”

“In documents filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania today, city officials agreed to a set of reforms that will end the perverse financial incentives under which law enforcement keeps and uses forfeiture revenue, fundamentally reform procedures for seizing and forfeiting property, and establish a $3 million fund to compensate innocent people whose property was wrongly confiscated,” the team said.

“Civil forfeiture – where the government can seize and sell your property without convicting or even charging you with a crime – is one of the greatest threats to property rights today. With civil forfeiture, the government sues the property itself under the fiction that cash, cars or even homes can be guilty, resulting in bizarre case names like Commonwealth v. 2000 Buick. And because these cases are civil, innocent property owners are denied rights guaranteed to criminal defendants, like the right to an attorney.”

IJ said Philadelphia for decades rigged its system against property owners.

“Until IJ brought suit, Philadelphia routinely threw property owners out of their homes without notice. It forced owners to navigate the notorious ‘Courtroom 478,’ where so-called ‘hearings’ were run entirely by prosecutors, without any judges or court-appointed lawyers to defend property owners. Again and again, prosecutors demanded that property owners appear in court, sometimes ten times or more. Missing even a single ‘hearing’ meant that prosecutors could permanently take an owner’s property, sell it and use the proceeds for any law-enforcement purpose they wished. More than 35 percent of proceeds went to salaries, including the salaries of the very officials seizing and forfeiting property, thus creating a perverse incentive to abuse this system. Today’s landmark settlement brings all of that to an end,” IJ said.

“For too long, Philadelphia treated its citizens like ATMs, ensnaring thousands of people in a system designed to strip people of their property and their rights,” said Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “No more. Today’s groundbreaking agreement will end years of abuse and create a fund to compensate innocent owners.”

One of the named plaintiffs was Chris Sourovelis, whose son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs.

The city’s response?

“The police showed up unannounced one day and threw his entire family out of his home.”

“I’m glad that there is finally a measure of justice for people like me who did nothing wrong but still found themselves fighting to keep what was rightly theirs,” Sourovelis said in a statement by his lawyers. “No one in Philadelphia should ever have to go through the nightmare my family faced.”

The resolution will mean the city cannot begin a seizure or forfeiture for simple drug possession, and there will be no seizures of less than $1,000 if they are not part of an arrest or evidence in a criminal case.

And there will be no attempts to forfeit cash unless drugs or evidence of criminal activity are found.

Also, police “must provide people with detailed receipt of property seized that explains how to ask the court to order return of property” and “property owners must be given important information about the forfeiture process before going to court.”

There also are other new requirements regarding hearings and procedural protections, including that prosecutors are required to prove an owner knew about any illegal use of his or her property.

There’s also a new ban on prosecutors and police keeping forfeiture proceeds and using that for salaries.

The $3 million will be used to compensate anyone whose property was taken inappropriately.

IJ said the details are in two legally binding consent decrees, and both sides are requesting a court approve them.

“Once that happens, Philadelphians who were caught up in the city’s forfeiture machine can apply for compensation. IJ will work with a third-party administrator to review all claims and ensure they are carefully processed,” the legal team said.

IJ also has other lawsuits over forfeiture problems in the works, and IJ President Scott Bullock said the Philadelphia agreement is “an unprecedented blow” against the practice.

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