In Forbes, Nick Sibilla explains how the city of Philadelphia uses the civil forfeiture laws to enrich city coffers and oppress the residents:
Chris Sourovelis has never had any trouble with the law or been accused of any crime. But that hasn’t stopped the City of Philadelphia from trying to take his home.
The Sourouvelis family, along with thousands of others in Philadelphia, is living a Kafkaesque nightmare: Their property is considered guilty; they must prove their innocence and the very prosecutors they’re fighting can profit from their misery. Now the Institute for Justice has filed a major class-action lawsuit to end these abuses of power.
Back in March, Chris’s son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside of the home. With no previous arrests or a prior record, a court ordered him to attend rehab. But the very day Sourovelis was driving his son to begin treatment, he got a frantic call from his wife. Without any prior notice, police evicted the Sourovelises and seized the house, using a little-known law known as “civil forfeiture.”
Law enforcement barred the family from living in their own home for over a week. The family could only return home if they banned their son from visiting and relinquished some of their constitutional rights. Adding to the cruel irony, their son has already completed rehab, ending his punishment by the city. “If this can happen to me and my family, it can happen to anybody,” Sourovelis said.
Under civil forfeiture, property owners do not have to be convicted of a crime, or even charged with one, to permanently lose their property. Instead, the government can forfeit a property if it’s found to “facilitate” a crime, no matter how tenuous the connection. So rather than sue the owner, in civil forfeiture proceedings, the government sues the property itself, leading to surreal case names like Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. The Real Property and Improvements Known as 2544 N. Colorado St.
In other words, thanks to civil forfeiture, the government punishes innocent people for the crimes other people might have committed.
Update: As Eve Harris reminded me, civil forfeiture is not a US-only issue, and the police in British Columbia have been feeding cases to the province’s Civil Forfeiture Office (CFO) for further action even when no criminal charges are filed (and sometimes even when the police have violated Charter rights in the process). BC’s CFO was established in 2006 and since then has generated about $41 million in proceeds from civil forfeiture actions. Six other provinces also have civil forfeiture laws, but BC is leading the pack in the scale and scope of their activities. Eve also sent a link to a National Post article (which I can’t quote from without paying a licensing fee, which is why I rarely if ever link to that newspaper).