Northeast Times

Fighting forfeiture

A Somerton couple was forced out of their home and told the DA’s office will seize the property because of their son’s drug arrest.

  • Home sweet home?: Christos and Markela Sourovelis filed a federal class action suit, seeking to have the city’s forfeiture program declared unconstitutional. They said the District Attorney’s office forced them out of their Ferndale Street home as a result of their son selling heroin worth $40. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • Filing suit: Christos and Markela Sourovelis claim the Philly DA’s Public Nuisance Task Force is overaggressive in taking properties, and because the money raised by forfeiture goes into the salaries of the people who run the program, there is a conflict of interest built in.

A North­east couple has been try­ing to keep their Somer­ton home from be­com­ing the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s of­fice’s prop­erty. Chris­tos and Markela Sour­ovel­is said rep­res­ent­at­ives of the DA’s of­fice forced them out of their Ferndale Street home in early May, telling the couple that the of­fice will take the prop­erty from them be­cause of their son’s March drug ar­rest. 

That pro­cess of tak­ing the couple’s home is called for­feit­ure.

Last week, Chris­tos and Markela joined two oth­er plaintiffs who filed a fed­er­al class ac­tion suit, seek­ing to have the city’s for­feit­ure pro­gram de­clared un­con­sti­tu­tion­al. In their suit, they claimed the Philly DA’s Pub­lic Nuis­ance Task Force is over­ag­gress­ive in tak­ing prop­er­ties and, be­cause, the money raised by for­feit­ure goes in­to the salar­ies of the people who run the pro­gram, there is a con­flict of in­terest built in.

The Sour­ovel­ises say they are be­ing vic­tim­ized by loc­al en­force­ment of state for­feit­ure laws that were set up to deny il­leg­al drug sellers the cash, cars and real prop­erty they used to com­mit their crimes. They es­sen­tially were be­ing run over by an anti-crime pro­gram, they said, and in­sisted they’re not crim­in­als.

The idea be­hind for­feit­ure, ac­cord­ing to a news re­lease from the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s of­fice, is to com­bat il­leg­al drug use and that some prop­er­ties be­come neigh­bor­hood nuis­ances when they are used for drug dis­tri­bu­tion.

The Pub­lic Nuis­ance Task Force, which ini­ti­ates for­feit­ure in Philly, wrote DA’s spokes­wo­man Tasha Jamer­son, “works dir­ectly with cit­izens, the po­lice, gov­ern­ment agen­cies, and com­munity groups in an ef­fort to abate or close drug prop­er­ties (both res­id­en­tial and com­mer­cial.)”

In an Aug. 15 in­ter­view in their home, the Sour­ovel­ises said they’re not drug deal­ers and have nev­er been charged with hav­ing any­thing to do with nar­cot­ics. They said they are a middle-class work­ing couple whose son sold heroin worth $40 to a snitch out­side their home. In­stead of ar­rest­ing this adult son when and where he made the sale, Chris­tos com­plained, po­lice waited a day and ar­res­ted him in their home.

“Why not ar­rest him when they see him do this?” he asked.

In­stead, Markela said, the fam­ily got a ter­ri­fy­ing vis­it from the cops on March 27 after Chris­tos had left for work. She said po­lice star­ted banging on their door, stuck a gun in the door and threatened to shoot her bark­ing pet pit bull if she didn’t put it out of sight and open the door.

Cops came in, took her son in­to cus­tody, looked through the house and threatened to ar­rest her, she said. Mean­while, a neigh­bor called Chris­tos at his job, telling him po­lice were at his house. Chris­tos said he called his wife more than 100 times while he drove the 90 minutes from his job to his house, but she nev­er answered. His wife said po­lice took her phone from her and wouldn’t let her make calls or an­swer it.

“I get home and find my wife cry­ing,” he said. “It was a mess.”

BAT­TLING THE DA

Their son entered in­to a di­ver­sion­ary court pro­gram, the Sour­ovel­ises said, and went in­to a drug re­hab pro­gram. A day after that ended in early May, the couple said, they got a vis­it from rep­res­ent­at­ives of the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s of­fice who said their home was be­ing taken from them.

They were forced out for a week, they said, and lived at an­oth­er son’s home. They went to City Hall, where they said an as­sist­ant dis­trict at­tor­ney from the DA’s Pub­lic Nuis­ance Task Force told them they could go back in­to their house only if they agreed to keep their son out of it.

Not rep­res­en­ted by a law­yer at the time, they agreed, but the re­quest per­plexed them.

“Why can’t he be here so we can take care of him?” Chris­tos asked. He said he and his wife asked where their son would live if not with them. They said they were told that’s not the DA’s prob­lem.

Their son now lives with one of the couple’s oth­er chil­dren.

On one of their trips to City Hall’s Room 478 to find out how they can keep their prop­erty, the couple met a rep­res­ent­at­ive of the In­sti­tute for Justice, a Vir­gin­ia-based non­profit that has an in­terest in for­feit­ure laws. Markela said the in­sti­tute got them a law­yer to rep­res­ent them pro bono to help them keep their home. 

They also joined the suit filed Aug. 12 in fed­er­al court to stop Phil­adelphia’s whole for­feit­ure pro­cess. Why? Chris­tos said he didn’t do any­thing and, if the DA’s of­fice could take his house, it could take any­body’s.

It’s all so ter­ri­fy­ing, Markela said. “You’re scared; you don’t know what’s go­ing on … You have hanging over your head that some­body is go­ing to take your house away.”

Ac­cord­ing to a press re­lease from the In­sti­tute for Justice, civil for­feit­ure brings in rev­en­ue equal to al­most 20 per­cent of the DA’s an­nu­al budget and the city spends al­most 40 per­cent of the money for­feit­ure brings in on salar­ies, in­clud­ing the salar­ies of the “very po­lice and pro­sec­utors do­ing the seiz­ing.” 

The in­sti­tute stated civil for­feit­ure brings in more than $6 mil­lion an­nu­ally, twice as much as the rev­en­ue gen­er­ated by Brook­lyn, N.Y., and Los Angeles County, Cal­if., com­bined.

“Phil­adelphia’s sys­tem of robo-for­feit­ures and kangaroo courts pads the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s budget with mil­lions of dol­lars of un­ac­count­able funds by strip­ping in­no­cent res­id­ents of their rights and prop­erty,” said Darpana Sh­eth, the in­sti­tute’s lead coun­sel on the case.

The Sour­ovel­ises are just one ex­ample of thou­sands each year who get en­snared by for­feit­ure in Philly, the in­sti­tute stated in its Aug. 12 press re­lease.

Phil­adelphi­ans Doila Welch and Norys Hernan­dez also are bat­tling for­feit­ure and are parties in the suit.

In a phone in­ter­view last week, Sh­eth said the in­sti­tute be­came in­ter­ested in Phil­adelphia’s for­feit­ure pro­gram after read­ing a story about it in the City Pa­per.  

“Phil­adelphia really is the ground zero for for­feit­ure,” Sh­eth said.

CLASS AC­TION

The class ac­tion suit, Sh­eth said, is filed on be­half of all the prop­erty own­ers who are in­volved in for­feit­ure in Philly -— or might be in the fu­ture.

Mon­et­ary dam­ages are not be­ing sought. “We want the city to stop what they’re do­ing,” she said.

Sh­eth said she wants a fed­er­al court to de­clare for­feit­ure un­con­sti­tu­tion­al. She said it runs con­trary to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion’s 14th Amend­ment’s due pro­cess clause. Sh­eth said the in­sti­tute has in­ter­vened in oth­er for­feit­ure cases around the coun­try, but this is the first time it has tried to get a for­feit­ure pro­gram de­clared un­con­sti­tu­tion­al.

Jamer­son said the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s of­fice wouldn’t com­ment dir­ectly on the suit. However, she said the Pub­lic Nuis­ance Task Force does not al­ways 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.”

In an Au­gust 2009 North­east Times story on the task force, its head and de­fense at­tor­neys said a prop­erty own­er’s best de­fense in a for­feit­ure case is prov­ing he or she knew noth­ing about drug deal­ing.

“Every case is eval­u­ated in its own set of cir­cum­stances,” As­sist­ant Dis­trict At­tor­ney Beth Gross­man said in 2009.

That same year, at­tor­ney Mark Green­berg told the Times that the bur­den is on the own­er of the prop­erty seized to prove that it is not con­nec­ted to drug activ­ity. Of­ten, he said, that’s not a simple de­term­in­a­tion. At­tor­ney Wil­li­am Bren­nan said the task force’s at­tor­neys are tough, but will ne­go­ti­ate.

Set­tle­ments, Gross­man said in 2009, de­pend “on the level of threat to the neigh­bor­hood.”  ••

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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