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Sourovelis v. City of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 30, 2017

CHRISTOS SOUROVELIS, et al., Plaintiffs,
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, et al., Defendants.


          EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, J.

         Table of Contents

         I. INTRODUCTION ............................................ 2

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND ...................................... 4

         A. Civil Forfeiture Procedures Prior to October 2015.. 7

         B. Defendants' Interim Measures ....................... 9

         C. Civil Forfeiture Procedures Adopted in 2016 ....... 10

         III. PROCEDURAL HISTORY ..................................... 11

         IV. LEGAL STANDARDS ........................................ 14

         A. Rule 12(b)(1) ..................................... 14

         B. Rule 12(b)(6) ..................................... 16

         V. THE FJD DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS ................. 17

         A. Rule 12(b)(1) ..................................... 18

         1. Standing, Mootness, and Ripeness ............. 19

         a. Challenge to Prior Procedures ........... 22

         b. Challenge to Current Procedures ......... 27

         2. Federalism and Comity ........................ 30

         B. Rule 12(b)(6) ..................................... 32

         1. Count Three .................................. 34

         2. Count Seven .................................. 38

         a. Adjudication ............................ 38

         b. Use of Criminal Procedures .............. 40

         c. Adequate Notice ......................... 41

         3. Proper Defendants ............................ 42

         VI. THE CITY DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS ................. 43

         VII. CONCLUSION ............................................. 47


         Plaintiffs filed this putative class action on August II, 2014, challenging Philadelphia's civil forfeiture policies and practices. Plaintiffs originally filed six claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Philadelphia, the Mayor, and the Police Commissioner (the “City Defendants”); and the Philadelphia District Attorney and D.A.'s Office (the “D.A. Defendants”). After all of Plaintiffs' claims survived a motion to dismiss and the parties settled Counts One and Two, Plaintiffs filed a Second Amended Complaint, adding four state court administrators as defendants and adding a seventh claim. The new defendants - the Honorable Sheila A. Woods-Skipper, in her official capacity as Chair of the Administrative Governing Board of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania (the “FJD”); the Honorable Jacqueline F. Allen, in her official capacity as a member of the Administrative Governing Board of the FJD; Joseph H. Evers, in his official capacity as Court Administrator of the FJD; and Charles A. Mapp, in his official capacity as Chief Deputy Court Administrator of the FJD (the “FJD Defendants”) - have moved to dismiss all of the claims against them (Counts Three, Four, Six, and Seven). The City Defendants have moved to dismiss Counts Four and Six against them. Plaintiffs oppose both motions. The Court held a hearing to address the FJD Defendants' motion.[1] As the City Defendants had previously moved to dismiss the same claims against them that are the subject of their instant motion, the Court determined to consider the City's motion on submission without a hearing.

         For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny both the FJD Defendants' motion to dismiss and the City Defendants' motion to dismiss.


         In their Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs allege the following facts, which are presumed to be true for the purposes of the instant motions to dismiss.

         Civil forfeiture statutes permit states and the federal government to file actions, under certain circumstances, to obtain ownership of private real and personal property that is related to certain categories of criminal activity. In Pennsylvania, the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 6801 and 6802 (the “CSFA”), provides that certain real and personal property that is connected to a violation of Pennsylvania's Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, 35 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 780-101 to 780-144, is subject to forfeiture by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6801. The CSFA sets forth the property that is subject to forfeiture by the Commonwealth, see id., and provides a procedure for the forfeiture proceedings, which must be filed in the court of common pleas of the judicial district where the property is located, see Id. § 6802.

         Plaintiffs' claims in this action relate to property forfeited through civil forfeiture proceedings brought by the D.A.'s Office in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. The majority of the property, Plaintiffs allege, was forfeited pursuant to the CSFA.[2] Second Am. Compl. ¶ 41 [hereinafter SAC], ECF No. 157. According to Plaintiffs, Philadelphia's civil forfeiture program is one of the largest municipal forfeiture programs in the country, and “unprecedented in scale.” Id. at 14, ¶ 54. Plaintiffs allege that the D.A.'s Office forfeited over $90 million worth of property from 1987 to 2012 through civil forfeiture proceedings, Id. ¶ 53, yielding an average of $5.6 million in forfeiture revenue each year, Id. ¶ 54. Forfeiture data Plaintiffs obtained from the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General indicates that the D.A.'s Office collected over $72.6 million in forfeiture revenue from fiscal years 2002 through 2014. Id. ¶ 57. Plaintiffs allege that this amount constitutes nearly one-fifth of the general budget of the D.A.'s Office as appropriated by the City of Philadelphia. Id. ¶ 60.

         Plaintiffs allege that the City and D.A. Defendants seize large quantities of personal property for forfeiture, including cash, cell phones, clothing, jewelry, prescription medication, and licensed firearms. Id. ¶ 81. Plaintiffs claim that the majority of the cash seized involves small amounts of money. Id. ¶ 73. For example, in 2010, Philadelphia filed 8, 284 currency forfeiture petitions, with an average of $550 at issue in each case. Id. ¶ 74. Plaintiffs also allege that the City and D.A. Defendants file civil forfeiture petitions on 300 to 500 real properties (mostly private residences) each year. Id. ¶ 83. Approximately 100 of these real properties are forfeited and sold at auction annually; and a significant majority of the remaining cases settle under threat of civil forfeiture. Id.

         Plaintiffs allege that the City Defendants, the D.A. Defendants, and the FJD Defendants had various roles in creating and implementing Philadelphia's civil forfeiture procedures. Those procedures have changed over the course of this lawsuit in response to the partial settlement of Plaintiffs' claims and negotiations among the parties in response to the remaining claims. As such, Plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint contains allegations relating to three sets of procedures: (1) the civil forfeiture procedures that existed at the time they filed this action, which Plaintiffs allege were in place from approximately January 2, 2007, through October 19, 2015 (“the Prior Procedures”); (2) the civil forfeiture procedures in place from October 19, 2015, through July 25, 2016, pursuant to interim measures adopted by Defendants in response to the instant lawsuit; and (3) the current civil forfeiture procedures, which the First Judicial District adopted on July 25, 2016 (“the Current Procedures”). The relevant details of each of these three sets of procedures are set forth below.

         A. Civil Forfeiture Procedures Prior to October 2015

         Plaintiffs allege that, prior to January 2007, the court administrators of the First Judicial District, predecessors of the FJD Defendants, assigned forfeiture matters to a criminal court judge or criminal motions judge of the Court of Common Pleas. See SAC ¶¶ 114-19. From 1999 to 2004, a criminal court judge heard all forfeiture cases in a dedicated courtroom in the Criminal Justice Center, with a complete court staff, including a stenographer, a Clerk of Quarter Sessions, and criminal listing support staff. Id. ¶ 115. At some point between 2004 and 2007, a shortage of personnel resulted in no Clerk of Quarter Sessions or stenographer in the forfeiture courtroom. Id. ¶ 122.

         In January 2007, the FJD Defendants notified Assistant District Attorneys that forfeiture and related proceedings would be transferred to the Civil Court Division. Id. ¶ 123. Accordingly, the FJD Defendants transferred forfeiture proceedings to Courtroom 478 in City Hall. Id. Courtroom 478 lacked a presiding judge or any officer with adjudicative ability, and had no stenographer, court reporter, or Clerk of Quarter Sessions. Id. ¶ 124. Instead, Assistant District Attorneys with the Public Nuisance Task Force - the unit of the D.A.'s Office that filed and litigated civil forfeiture petitions - fully controlled the proceedings. Id. ¶ 129. Cases involving personal property were frequently assigned to a paralegal instead of a prosecutor. Id. ¶ 130.

         Under this procedure, upon the filing of a civil forfeiture petition, property owners were required to appear in Courtroom 478 at 9 a.m. to attempt to reclaim their property. Id. ¶ 127. If a property owner failed to appear, prosecutors marked the case for default judgment without any determination, judicial or otherwise, as to the reason the property owner did not appear. Id. ¶ 132. If the property owner did appear, the assigned prosecutor or paralegal would discuss the case with the property owner, frequently advising the owner that he or she did not need an attorney. Id. ¶ 135. Plaintiffs allege that prosecutors and paralegals (1) routinely gave property owners a set of over 50 pattern interrogatories, to be answered under penalty of perjury; (2) compelled owners of real property to execute agreements to unseal their residences on certain conditions, including barring specific individuals from entering indefinitely and waiving statutory and constitutional defenses; and (3) relisted civil proceedings an average of five times each, requiring property owners to appear each time or risk default of their property. See Id. ¶¶ 136-41.

         B. Defendants' Interim Measures

         Plaintiffs filed this suit on August 11, 2014, challenging the constitutionality of the above procedures. Plaintiffs allege that on or about June 25, 2015, the FJD Defendants met with the D.A.'s Office to discuss changes to the administration of civil forfeiture proceedings. Id. ¶ 143. As an interim measure, beginning on October 19, 2015, Court of Common Pleas Trial Commissioners, who are not judges, [3] began presiding over all forfeiture and related proceedings in Courtroom 478. See Id. ¶ 144. These proceedings were recorded, and the Trial Commissioners were assisted by courtroom clerks. See Id. The Trial Commissioners began referring all disputed matters to a criminal motions judge. Id. In January 2016, the FJD Defendants moved civil forfeiture proceedings from Courtroom 478 to a criminal courtroom. Id. ¶ 145. Following a seizure of property, property owners are served with civil forfeiture petitions, which contain a date for a pretrial conference. Id. ¶ 146. Property owners are required to answer forfeiture petitions within 30 days, often before the pretrial conference, at which the owners are informed of their rights. Id. ¶ 147. Forfeiture petitions are docketed as criminal matters unless the property owner requests a jury trial. Id. ¶ 150.

         C. Civil Forfeiture Procedures Adopted in 2016

         Plaintiffs allege that on July 25, 2016, the FJD Defendants posted General Court Regulation No. 2 of 2016 (the “GCR”), [4] entitled “Proceedings Seeking Civil Forfeiture of Real Estate and Seized Property, ” on the First Judicial District's website. See Id. ¶ 152.

         Plaintiffs allege that the GCR is problematic because, inter alia, it: (1) requires civil forfeiture petitions to be administered by criminal judges applying criminal rules of procedure; (2) implicates Fifth Amendment rights by requiring an answer to be filed, with default judgment as a penalty, without any notice that the answer may be used in related criminal proceedings; (3) increases a risk of erroneous deprivation by deferring an explanation of the forfeiture process until the pretrial conference; (4) authorizes Trial Commissioners, who are not judges, to perform adjudicative acts, such as deciding whether a case presents any genuine issues of material facts or whether property owners knowingly and voluntarily waive their right to a jury trial; (5) fails to advise property owners of the burdens of proof they must meet; (6) fails to advise property owners of their right to request a prompt post-deprivation hearing; and (7) does not clarify any of the procedures that will apply in a post-deprivation hearing. See Id. ¶ 154.


         Plaintiffs initiated this action on August 11, 2014, ECF No. 1, and amended their complaint on November 17, 2014, ECF No. 40. Plaintiffs filed a Second Amended Complaint on September 15, 2016. ECF No. 157. Plaintiffs Sourovelis, Welch, and Hernandez are the owners of real property against which the D.A. Defendants commenced, under the CSFA, forfeitures that were pending in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County at the time the First Amended Complaint was filed. SAC ¶¶ 9-17. Plaintiff Geiger is the owner of personal property against which the D.A. ...

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