Judge Gives Preliminary Approval to Philadelphia Forfeiture Class Action Settlement

Starting May 24, 2019, Philadelphians whose property was taken by the city using civil forfeiture can apply for compensation

ANDREW WIMER, INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE

PHILADELPHIA— Philadelphians who lost their property to the city’s abusive civil forfeiture machine will be able to apply for compensation starting May 24, 2019. Last fall, the Institute for Justice (IJ) announced an agreement with the city to end a multi-year class action lawsuit on behalf of people who had homes, cash and cars wrongfully confiscated. Now, Judge Eduardo C. Robreno of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has preliminarily approved a settlement that includes a $3 million fund to compensate forfeiture victims. On May 23, 2019, notices will be mailed to more than 25,000 Philadelphians informing them that they could be eligible to apply for compensation using the unique identification number contained in the mailing.

“Philadelphians are one step closer to getting justice after years of being treated like ATMs by police and prosecutors,” said Darpana Sheth, lead counsel for plaintiffs and director of the Institute for Justice’s National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse. “Innocent victims caught up in Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine will be able to get back every penny taken from them. We strongly encourage anyone who was wronged to find out more at PhillyForfeiture.com.”

The preliminary approval of the settlement is the first step to putting in place two legally binding consent decrees, one governing Philadelphia’s forfeiture practices and the other providing compensation to victims.

In the first, the city of Philadelphia, the District Attorney and the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania will dismantle the city’s forfeiture machine. Among other things, the consent decree will, if given final court approval:

  • Greatly restrict when Philadelphia police can seize money and other property for forfeiture;
  • Improve the notice which owners receive about the forfeiture process and their rights under it;
  • Ensure that judges—not prosecutors—control forfeiture proceedings and monitor forfeiture settlements for fairness;
  • Prohibit prosecutors from making owners return to court again and again or risk of losing their property forever; and
  • Create a prompt, meaningful hearing where property owners can demand the immediate return of their property.

The second consent decree ends Philadelphia law enforcement’s unconstitutional financial incentive. It blocks the District Attorney’s Office and the Philadelphia Police Department from using forfeiture proceeds on salaries or other law-enforcement purposes, instead directing those funds to community-based drug prevention and treatment programs. If given final court approval, it also establishes a $3 million fund to compensate forfeiture victims, with the following details:

  • Each qualifying person who lost their property through forfeiture, but who was not convicted of a related criminal charge, will get up to 100 percent of the value of their forfeited property;
  • Each qualifying person who lost their property through forfeiture, but who was only sent to a diversionary program for low-level, first-time offenders, will receive up to 75 percent of the value of their forfeited property;
  • Each qualifying person who submits a timely claim will get up to $90 in recognition of the violation of their constitutional rights;
  • Each of the named representative plaintiffs, who fought for years to right this wrong, will get a $2,500 award for their efforts on behalf of the entire class; and
  • A portion of undisbursed funds will be distributed to non-profit organizations that provide services to communities hardest hit by Philadelphia’s former forfeiture practices.

More information and instructions on applying for compensation are available at PhillyForfeiture.com or by calling (888) 730-9958. The deadline for applications is August 26, 2019.

The court will then hold a final hearing on whether to approve the settlement on Friday, November 1, 2019.


Andrew Wimer is Assistant Director of Communications for the Institute of Justice. Andrew is a graduate of Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He received his Masters in Public Communications from American University.


Used with the permission of the Institute for Justice.