Philly civil forfeiture rules still in question as two families get homes back

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Are civil forfeitures a tool to help neighborhoods or a money grab by law enforcement?

That question that will be debated in federal court next year.

More immediately, two Philadelphia families now have their homes back after the city district attorney decided to stop going after their property.

The office of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is no longer trying to take the houses because of drug-related crimes committed by relatives of the homeowners.

Still, First Deputy District Attorney Ed McCann maintained the office uses civil forfeiture judiciously to help clean up neighborhoods.

“We often come to agreements, ultimately with owners making agreement so that their property doesn’t have to be forfeited drug dealing,” he said. “That happens all the time.”

This decision to drop the two forfeiture cases does not end a federal class-action suit filed by the Institute of Justice against the district attorney’s office earlier this year. The city of Philadelphia makes millions seizing property and selling it at auction to pay law-enforcement salaries, the Institute of Justice claims.

Williams’ office is overly aggressive and doesn’t offer basic legal protections to homeowners, said attorney Darpana Sheth.

She characterized it as turning “forfeiture into a veritable machine that devours people’s property as well as their constitutional rights.”

McCann said that’s just not the case.

“The complaints that we get about properties generally come from elected officials or from neighborhoods groups, and we respond to that,” he said. “This is not a money-making proposition. It’s a public safety tool, and we’re trying to use it responsibly … we are always working better to use it responsibly.”

Even if the two families will keep their homes, Sheth said she is pushing forward with the class-action suit to address the larger problem.

“Both clients are going to press forward and continue to fight the policies and procedures that the DA’s office has implemented to in pursuing civil forfeiture,” she said.

A hearing in the case is scheduled Jan. 15.

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