When he gets a break from his painting business, Christos Sourovelis likes to work on his family’s house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was for a time taken away by the government because his 22-year-old son Yianni was charged with selling $40 worth of heroin there.
Sourovelis says he knew nothing about it, but under a seizure law, federal authorities took the home, which was first transferred to the office of the Philadelphia District Attorney, CNN said in a report that detailed how nearly 500 families in Philadelphia had their homes or cars taken away by city officials, according to records from Pennsylvania’s Attorney General.
“I’m a working guy. I work every day, six days a week, even seven if I have to,” Sourovelis says, still reeling from what happened to him and his wife, Markella, who have never been charged with a crime or accused of any wrongdoing.
“I was so upset thinking somebody’s going to take my house for nothing. That makes me crazy,” Sourovelis said, shaking his head in disbelief.
First, police showed up to arrest their son and 45 days later authorities came back to seize the house, turning off the power and locking the door with screws, throwing them on the street with no recourse.
Authorities won’t comment on the exact circumstances because of pending litigation regarding the case but CNN said that police and prosecutors came armed with a lawsuit against the house itself because it was tied to illegal drugs and subject to civil forfeiture.
In some states, like Pennsylvania, the burden is on the property owner to prove their innocence. The Sourvelises say they had to go to a courtroom and fight to get their home back where, instead of facing a judge, they faced a prosecutor from the DA’s office.
There was no courtroom or judge, Sourvelis said. “There’s just one guy telling us to sign these papers. That’s it.”
After eight days of sleeping on a family member’s couch, the Sourvelises were let back into their house, but only on the guarantee they would ban their son from the house – a heartbreaking decision, they say. (Their son pleaded no contest to the drug charges.)
CNN legal analyst and consumer attorney, Brian Kabateck, saids the law is intended to protect the public. “It discourages crime and it takes the ill-gotten gains away from the bad people.”
But not all people who have their property taken away are charged with a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, the civil law in Pennsylvania allows authorities to seize property without the owner ever being convicted or even charged.
The Sourovelis’ have filed a federal class action suit, seeking to have the city’s forfeiture program declared unconstitutional but that’s not helping them right now.
Civil liberties attorneys with the Institute for Justice, who recently filed a class action lawsuit against Philadelphia authorities for abusing the law, told CNN: “Civil forfeiture is something that is an assault upon fundamental notions of private property ownership and due process.”
But Kabateck disagrees, “It’s a good law. It works. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sometimes have issues that need to be corrected. The system constantly has to change.”
Over a four-year period, Allegheny County, the second largest county in Pennsylvania, filed about 200 petitions for civil forfeiture. Philadelphia filed nearly 7,000 petitions in one year alone, according to the class action lawsuit, in which the Sourvelises are plaintiffs, along with other Philadelphia citizens.
Philadelphia officials seized more than 1,000 houses, about 3,300 vehicles and $44 million in cash, totaling $64 million in civil forfeitures over a 10-year period, according to the lawsuit.
The very authorities taking the property appear to be profiting from it, according to Pennsylvania state records. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office says about $7 million went straight to the salaries for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office and the police department in just three years.
In that same time period, records show the D.A.’s office spent no money on community-based drug and crime-fighting programs, according to the Philadelphia AG’s office.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office told CNN it seizes property only as a last resort, and added that it is limited in what it can currently say because of the pending litigation.
“In most cases the Public Nuisance Task Force doesn’t pursue forfeiture because the underlying issue with the real estate is resolved when a settlement agreement is reached with the property owner in which he or she agrees to take reasonable efforts to prevent future narcotics dealing from the property.”
Still fighting the city to resolve their case and stay in their home permanently, Markella Sourovelis says: “To me I’m home, but I feel violated at this point. I’m doing things in my house, but I worry is it always going to be my house? Are they going to take it one day like that?”
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office told CNN it strictly follows the state law in an effort to crack down on drug abuse.
“In these efforts we will follow applicable law to protect the rights of those involved – not only drug dealers and those associated with them – but the law-abiding citizens who are negatively affected by them.”