Harper Introduces Civil Forfeiture Reform Measure
HARRISBURG – Working to ensure homeowners receive due process when faced with the possibility of civil forfeiture of their homes, Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery) has introduced legislation making needed reforms to state law.
“We have seen far too many situations, especially in the City of Philadelphia, where people have been kicked out of their homes – people who not only have not been charged with a crime but have not even been involved in the commission of a crime at all,” Harper said. “We need to ensure these homeowners have the opportunity to make their case – before they are evicted from their homes – to determine if civil forfeiture is an appropriate action.”
Harper pointed to one case in particular that prompted her to introduce the legislation. In 2014, Christos Sourovelis and his wife were kicked out of their house without notice after police arrested their 22-year-old son for selling drugs outside of the house. According to media accounts, the couple said they had no knowledge of their son’s involvement in the drug trade and didn’t know anything about the city’s attempt to seize their property until they received a notice of eviction.
Such notices are called “seize and seal orders.” While such orders are intended to be used only in extreme circumstances, an Institute for Justice analysis found 85 percent of Philadelphia’s forfeiture cases filed against homes in 2014 begin with the seize and seal order.
“This family was evicted while the forfeiture case was still in court and was not given the opportunity to explain why their home was not an instrument of the crime,” Harper said. “This is not how the civil forfeiture law is supposed to work.”
House Bill 1155
would prevent situations like the one the Sourovelises faced by prohibiting seizure of a home before entry of an order of forfeiture and by prohibiting eviction of the owner while the forfeiture action proceeds.
Harper’s bill also aims to ensure indigent homeowners have access to a lawyer by requiring the court to appoint counsel if the owner or a family member resides in the home and has not been charged.
“In civil forfeiture cases, the burden falls on the homeowner to prove that he or she neither took part in a crime nor consented to it,” Harper said. “People who cannot afford to hire counsel are at a disadvantage when it comes to saving their home from a forfeiture action, so this change is important also to ensuring due process.”
Civil forfeiture was established as a tool to combat the illegal drug trade by taking away assets involved in a crime or illegal activity.
House Bill 1155 will likely be referred to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.
Representative Kate Harper
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Rep. Harper’s Blue Bell Office