PHILADELPHIA—The most notorious courtroom in America is surprisingly small and bright, and noisier than the multiple “silence” signs might suggest. Every weekday morning, people who have had property seized by the city show up to Courtroom 478 in City Hall; they find chairs and wait for their names or their addresses to be called. Some of them talk to a legal observer, who quietly takes notes on a yellow legal pad. Some of them talk among themselves.
On Thursday morning, after spotting my notebook, one of them turned and talked to me. “This is bullshit,” said Brian Corrine, 42 years old and skinny, fidgeting in his roomy T-shirt and shorts. He started talking about how the city’s Public Nuisance Task Force, which had been monitoring his methadone clinic, busted him after mistaking one of his conversations for a drug deal.
“There was a gun to my head,” he said. “I thought I was being carjacked. Then I seen the cop in the rearview mirror, and I was like: Oh, no, I surrender. They took my phone, the $90 I had on me. They left my car in the parking lot, window down. I got locked up on $5,000 bail.”
As Corrine told the rest of the story, a couple nearby nodded and grimaced, holding hands. After being freed, Corrine had to go through the civil forfeiture process to get his possessions. “But if you see my forfeiture, it says nothing about my phone,” he said. “They thought I was recording, probably. I know I hit record.”
The couple next to Corrine were beckoned outside. They were trying to recover money taken when one of them was caught with an ounce of crack; the city had lost their paperwork, and they’d need to head to another room to restart the process. Their place in Courtroom 478 was taken by Anthony Moore, a 38-year-old parking attendant who’d been making money on the side reselling iPhones, until he was pulled over by police in November 2013. They grabbed his car, the 60 phones he had on him, and $800 in cash.
“I got the car back three months later,” he said. “They’d torn it up. There was a foot of ice in the trunk. And in the meantime, I was out of business. You build relationships with customers, and then you can’t work with them anymore.”
But he was still trying to get back the money and the phones. As he talked, Brian Corrine’s father, Joseph, entered the court and started talking to his son about their strategy. The phone had been on Joseph’s family plan; he’d notarized a letter asking the city to give him back his property. Finally, they got called up, beckoned into the hallway—and told that they’d need to file a new complaint.
“This is corrupt as shit!” said Joseph Corrine to the city worker who’d broken the bad news. “I spent three years in the Army for this country. I got used to hurry-and-wait, but it was never like this. This is bullshit.” Corrine steadied his nerves and walked over to me. “You know what this is, right? This is a fundraising scheme for the city.”
That’s what the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city and the District Attorney’s Office are claiming. On Aug. 11 the D.C.-based libertarian Institute for Justice charged that Philadelphia operated a “veritable machine” of civil forfeiture, which violated the due process clause of the Constitution.
If there is a post-Ferguson marriage of principles between progressives and libertarians, it is breaking out in Philadelphia. The Institute for Justice’s stated goal is the end of civil forfeiture. As thousands of Philadelphians work through the system every year, they must wonder whether the libertarians have it right.
The Institute for Justice filed its lawsuit after months of observing the courtroom, four years after it published a report on how civil forfeiture meant “property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” two years after Philadelphia City Paper reporter Isaiah Thompson published a lengthy investigation of the process, and one year after a blockbuster New Yorker piece about forfeitures around the country. The basic argument, in the articles and in the lawsuit, was that Philadelphia’s use of forfeiture was wildly out of whack. Thompson’s reporting found that the city brought in “upwards of $6 million a year” from forfeitures, or about five times as much as Brooklyn. Those numbers, and Thompson’s subsequent reporting, are cited in the Institute for Justice’s filing.
“If you fail to show up in 478, they call your name, and prosecutor marks your case for default,” said the Institute for Justice’s lead attorney on the case, Darpana Sheth. She’d previously worked on a forfeiture case in Massachusetts, which the group had made famous—George Will even wrote a datelined column about it. “If you tell average people on the street how this works,” said Sheth, “it sounds so foreign to the American system, they can’t believe it.”
The city’s DA office, full of lawyers who definitely consider themselves American—and who are required to live within city lines—say that the public is getting a false narrative. By the time I sat down with them, on Thursday, they’d seen stories about the lawsuit on CNN, in Forbes, in the Wall Street Journal. Most of the stories focused on the lead plaintiffs, Christos and Markela Sourovelis, whose home was padlocked for a week after their son was arrested for selling $40 of drugs.
The DA’s office was tired of that version of the story. The Sourovelises’ son, said Chief Assistant DA Beth Grossman, was caught up in an investigation into the heroin trade. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that heroin makes zombies out of people,” said Grossman. “Heroin is truly, truly a poison.”
CNN’s report, among others, had been clear about that. Grossman said that the rest of the raid and seizure had been soft-pedaled. “The police execute a search and seizure warrant,” she said, running through a timeline of the incident. “They are identified as police. They knock on the door. Mom, after being directed to restrain her pit bull, refuses to. Eventually she restrains the pit bull, but during this time her son, who’s in the house, is running up the stairs to flush his drugs down the toilet. The mom, who could have been arrested for obstructing justice, is not, but an officer is able to reach his hand down the toilet—which was running—and extract the heroin. It’s a little bit beyond what has been covered.”
George D. Mosee Jr. is the deputy district attorney; he has been on the job for 26 years, since before the 1992 toughening of the civil forfeiture policy. He suggested that the critics did not stop to think of how much crime was being prevented. It wasn’t like homes were sold off right away. The Sourovelises, for example, had moved back in. Meanwhile, pimps who could have climbed back into their cars watched those cars be sold off. Drug dealers who otherwise could have re-established home bases were deprived of them.
“One of the things I’ve heard is that they believe that these are victimless crimes,” said Mosee. “I would point out that there are always victims. They are just not readily identifiable victims. If you live next door to a crack house, or a house that’s being used as a weed store, then they’re victims.”
“And why is it OK for people to deal in and out of their houses?” asked Grossman. “It’s illegal. What are they adding to society? Nothing.”
The libertarian critics are blunt about the civil seizure policy: It is terrifying, and possibly unconstitutional, and shouldn’t exist. The angry people wondering why they have to fight for their property, who think that the state is raking in money, are right.
A few hours after I left the DA’s office, Christos Sourovelis invited me into his now-famous home. It was located far from Philadelphia’s blighted areas, in the northeast corner of the city-county, on a street where more than one sedan bore a Fraternal Order of Police bumper sticker. The also-famous canine, a red-nosed bulldog named Max, jumped around at the sight of an intruder but calmed down eventually. Sourovelis remembered how police had pointed guns at his dog—many dogs, in similar raids, have ended up dead—and was dumbfounded to hear a version of his story in which the dog and his family were obstructing justice.
“What that dog supposed to do?” said Sourovelis in his thick Greek accent. “He let them come inside the house? My wife and my son, they were sleeping. What he supposed to do? He did what he did to you, he bark.”
As evening fell, the backyard decorations built by Sourovelis slowly came to life. The fountain that he’d put together out of stones pulled from a river and statues of Greek gods lit up with green lights. Red lights glittered around the quasi-Tiki bar he’d put together, with a TV (“to watch football, watch hockey”) nestled beside a brick oven and keggerator. “I built this with my own two hands!” said Sourovelis. He did not want to hear any arguments about a war on drugs.
“They know where is the crack house and where is the money house,” said Sourovelis. “They were tracking the dealer who gave drugs to my son, and they didn’t arrest him right away, because they wanted this house.”
The plaintiff’s mind had been made up long ago. He did not want money. The libertarian law firm was representing him pro bono. He was asking for just $1 in damages. He wanted to bring down the system. That was all.
“What I say is, molon labe,” said Sourovelis. “You know the Battle of Thermopylae? Did you see 300? Those guys, the Persians, they want to take the Spartans’ land. King Leonidas says: ‘Molon labe. You want this, you come and take it.’ I’m not gonna give it to you. I’m gonna fight for my rights. I’m surprised no one else do this before.”