About two years ago, the Philadelphia district attorney's office was sued over its civil forfeiture program that allows local authorities to seize homes, cars and other assets from anyone suspected of being tied to the drug trade.
While officials have taken a number of steps to remedy some of the legal issues highlighted by the suit, the Washington-based Institute for Justice lawyers who brought the litigation were back in federal court on Wednesday raising another question: Should judges and other officials with Philadelphia's court system be named as defendants as the lawsuit moves toward trial?
"Through discovery, we realized that it's not just the prosecutors controlling these forfeitures proceedings, but the First Judicial District is specifically authorizing them to do so, and they are the ones crafting these procedures," said Darpana Sheth with the Institute for Justice.
Attorneys for the First Judicial District said there's no need to fight the lawsuit. In 2015, the court overhauled the program to address the concerns, making old claims against them moot.
For instance, a court official, not a prosecutor, oversees the hearings, reversing the old model. And the hearings were moved out of the infamous Room 478 in City Hall and into the criminal courthouse.
There's no reason to believe court officials will abandon those changes, court lawyers argued. Therefore, they shouldn't have to defend the suit along with prosecutors and the city.
Yet Sheth told the federal judge significant problems — including long delays and defendants being deprived of due-process rights — remain.
In particular, someone whose home was seized cannot challenge the seizure until a trial, which can take months or years.
"And so, in the meantime, a lot of innocent people don't have their car so they can get to work," Sheth said. "They don't have money that's been seized from them, or other personal property."
Defendants' cases are repeatedly listed for court hearings, and if they fail to show up just once, they can lose their property.
Nearly one-fifth of the budget for the district attorney's office in Philadelphia comes from selling off seized assets, according to Sheth. That's adds up to around $6 million a year — more than the assets seized every year by authorities in Los Angeles and Brooklyn combined.
"And they use that to pay salaries and other equipment for police officers and prosecutors," she said.
As a result of the litigation, prosecutors for a time halted filing forfeiture petitions, but authorities still seize properties. Most of those situations are resolved through settlements requiring defendants to pay to get their assets back, Sheth said.
In some cases, seizures occur even before someone is charged with a crime.
Officials with the district attorney's office say they have many ways to gain control of a property suspected to have links to drug trafficking. Properties may be taken to deprive drug dealers of assets and profits, and many seizures are in response to community requests, prosecutors maintain.
That's not always the case, Sheth said. Sometimes the homes are only loosely linked to drug dealers.
"It's the parents, or grandparents, and their house is taken, or their car is taken. And they did not do anything wrong," she said.
Defendants should have faster hearings and a judge, not court official, should be overseeing the cases, she said.
If all goes as planned, there will be a trial on whether the practice is constitutional sometime this year.
The heart of the lawsuit is the claim that since prosecutors use the profits of seized properties to pay for salaries and equipment, there's a problematic incentive to target people tangentially related to drug trafficking. The federal judge overseeing the case recently certified that part of the suit as a class action, meaning if the Institute for Justice wins on that front, thousands of Philadelphians could be affected.
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