No quick or easy remedy for Philadelphia’s profitable forfeiture machine

By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act allow all seized assets to go directly to the offices of prosecutors. The ACLU-PA found that prosecutors overwhelmingly target disadvantaged individuals without the means to fight the forfeiture in court. Photo from

In a class action challenge to Philadelphia’s forfeiture practices, a federal district court ruled on February 23 that people who have lost property through forfeiture will have to file separate lawsuits to be compensated, even if the court finds some of Philadelphia’s practices unconstitutional. The ruling underscored one key message: that relief for the victims of this deeply broken system is still a long way off.

The lawsuit, Sourovelis v. City of Philadelphia, was filed by the Institute for Justice (a Washington, DC-based property rights group) with the assistance of local civil rights hero David Rudovsky in the summer of 2014. It was filed at the same time that ACLU-PA was forming a broad-based Coalition for Forfeiture Reform to push for statewide legislative change to Pennsylvania’s civil forfeiture laws. On both groups’ agenda was removing the direct financial incentive for prosecutors’ offices to aggressively pursue forfeiture.

Under Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act, 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeiture go directly to the offices of the prosecutors who make decisions about what property to go after for forfeiture, who to target, and how ruthlessly to litigate forfeiture cases. In every county examined by the ACLU-PA, prosecutors disproportionately targeted people of color for forfeiture, taking mostly small amounts of cash where owners had little incentive to fight the forfeiture in court.

Senate and House bills would have removed this pecuniary incentive to use forfeiture overzealously and target people who can’t fight back by diverting forfeiture proceeds to a general fund instead. But in 2016, these bills were gutted at the urging of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association to remove all of the major reform components.

The current statute specifies that prosecutors are supposed to use forfeited property for drug enforcement, community-based drug- and crime-fighting programs, or relocation and protection of witnesses in criminal cases. However, the Sourovelis complaint alleges that, in Philadelphia, forfeiture proceeds are split between the police and District Attorney’s office and used in part to pay prosecutors’ salaries. The lawsuit makes the somewhat novel claim that the prosecutors’ financial stake in the outcome of forfeiture cases denies property owners due process.

In May 2015, the trial court rejected the City’s bid to throw out this due process claim, ruling that it couldn’t decide the claim without first resolving a factual dispute between the parties about whether the DA’s office actually used its forfeiture proceeds as contemplated by statute or used it for salaries.

In its February 23 ruling, the court made clear that even if the court ultimately sides with the plaintiffs and rules that the Philadelphia DA’s stake in the outcome of forfeiture cases is unconstitutional, the court will not order the return of all class members’ forfeited property. Rather, anyone who has lost property in Philadelphia to forfeiture would then have to file an individual lawsuit to determine what relief they’re entitled to.

With meaningful legislative reform seemingly off the table in Harrisburg and the federal trial court sending a signal that the Sourovelis lawsuit will not provide a quick or easy remedy for the victims of Philadelphia’s profitable forfeiture machine, it looks like Pennsylvanians will remain vulnerable to forfeiture abuse for a while longer.


(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

The ACLU is updating its police body camera recommendations to clarify public release guidelines and improve accountability. Photo by Ryan Johnson.

“In Pennsylvania, Black students were four and a half times more likely to be arrested than White students. This rate is two and a half times greater than the national rate for Black students. While Black students made up only 15% of student enrollment, they were 40% of the students arrested in Pennsylvania — a total of 2,074 Black students were arrested in 2013–14. In contrast, White students made up 69% of public students, but received 41% of student arrests.”

  • From ACLU National: “We’re Updating Our Police Body Camera Recommendations for Even Better Accountability and Civil Liberties Protections”

“We have also added language stipulating that police departments cannot use ‘investigative privilege’ as a basis for withholding footage where the suspect is a police officer (who likely is the one who recorded the video and has been allowed to see it). As we argue at greater length here, the rationale for such a privilege (tipping off suspects) does not apply when the suspect is a police officer. We do allow that redaction, subject to limitations, can be used in such situations.”

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We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.