Too often voters read the blurb on a sample ballot and think, “Yeah, that sounds good.” But, if you don’t think of the broader ramifications of the bill; if you don’t think about how much power you are giving to the government–you might just run into the type of government overreach in the article below.
The rare moments Christos Sourovelis can take a break from running his own painting business, he can be found toiling away on his family’s dream house in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
“I’m a working guy. I work every day, six days a week, even seven if I have to,” Sourovelis says. One day this past March, without warning, the government took his house away, even though he and his wife, Markella, 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 says, shaking his head.
The nightmare began when police showed up at the house and arrested their 22-year-old son, Yianni, on drug charges — $40 worth of heroin. Authorities say he was selling drugs out of the home. The Sourvelises say they had no knowledge of any involvement their son might have had with drugs.
A month-and-a-half later police came back — this time to seize their house, forcing the Sourvelises and their children out on the street that day. Authorities came with the electric company in tow to turn off the power and even began locking the doors with screws, the Sourvelises say. Authorities won’t comment on the exact circumstances because of pending litigation regarding the case.
Police and prosecutors came armed with a lawsuit against the house itself. It was being forfeited and transferred to the custody of the Philadelphia District Attorney. Authorities said the house was tied to illegal drugs and therefore subject to civil forfeiture.
In two years, nearly 500 families in Philadelphia had their homes or cars taken away by city officials, according to records from Pennsylvania’s attorney general.
Authorities use a civil forfeiture law that allows them to seize people’s property when that property is connected to the sale of illegal drugs.
CNN legal analyst and consumer attorney, Brian Kabateck, says 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 allows authorities to seize property without the owner ever being convicted or even charged.
In North Carolina property can be forfeited only if the property owner is actually convicted of a crime. This is not so in other states.
Civil liberties attorneys with the Institute for Justice, who recently filed a class action lawsuit against Philadelphia authorities for abusing the law, say, “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.”
In Pennsylvania, the City of Brotherly Love is far and away the most aggressive in the state when it comes to people’s property. 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.
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