PHILADELPHIA, PA — A couple and their two daughters were booted from their home without warning following their son’s first-time arrest over $40 worth of drugs. The homeowners were never accused of wrongdoing or charged with a crime.
* * * * *
This nightmare for the Sourovelis family began earlier in 2014, when police barged into the family home to arrest 22-year-old Yanni Sourovelis.
“By the time I got to the door, they had already opened the door, with his hand in, and put a gun to my dog’s head,” recalled Yanni’s mother, Markela, to CNN.
The police report stated that Yanni was in the bathroom when he was arrested. Officer Woertz “could hear the toilet running” and proceeded to break down the bathroom door to dutifully enforce prohibition laws.
Yanni Sourovelis had no arrests, prior to being caught with the tiny amount of drugs. He was accused of selling heroin from the family’s home. His parents stated that they had no knowledge of the alleged illegal activity.
“I’m a working guy. I work every day, six days a week, even seven if I have to,” said homeowner Christos Sourovelis. “I didn’t know what [Yanni] was doing. I’m not with him 24 hours a day.”
Christos Sourovelis said that he built the family’s home with his own hands and neither he, nor his wife, have every been charged with a crime.
The family’s trauma didn’t end with Yanni’s arrest. Over a month later, authorities returned to the home and forcibly evicted everyone without warning. Christos, Markela, their two daughters, and their dog were put out into the street that very day.
“We’re gonna break your walls, we’re gonna break your pipes. This house is gonna be ours,” Markela Sourovelis recalled being told by men carrying sledgehammers and power-tools. “As he was explaining to me what was going on, there was people closing the doors with screws, locking them. They had the electric company here to turn off my electric and gas,” she said.
And just like that — without being accused of a crime or losing a trial — the family’s dream home was seized and the Sourovelises were homeless. This shocking occurrence is considered legal and commonplace under a tactic known as civil asset forfeiture. Following Yanni’s arrest, Philadelphia prosecutors had filed a lawsuit against the house itself, and alleged that it was being used for illegal activities. Despite the homeowners’ innocence, the Philadelphia District Attorney was allowed to immediately seize the property.
“I didn’t do nothing wrong — I didn’t bother anybody, but still they came in and moved us out of our house,” said Christos Sourovelis to CBS Philly. “I have rights and we are still fighting for our house — no owners of houses in Philadelphia deserve that.”
The civil asset forfeiture racket is a self-perpetuating disease that plagues the American justice system, since dubiously-obtained property (which can include cash, vehicles, bank accounts, or other assets) subsequently goes to enrich the coffers of the very agencies who enforce the law. The tactic is known by its critics as “policing for profit” — a mild way of describing the plunderous tyranny.
The Phildelphia Inquirer reported that Philadelphia confiscated over $64 million in property and assets during the last decade. The bounty of stolen loot made up a sizable portion of the prosecutors’ own salaries, and undoubtedly added incentive for them to seize as much property as possible.
Property owners who have fallen victim to civil asset forfeiture in Philadelphia are left with one option: go to Courtroom 478 and try to appeal their case. But it is no sure thing; the process is overseen by the same agency responsible for the seizures in the first place.
“Courtroom 478 is no courtroom at all,” attorney Darpana Sheth told CBS Philadelphia. “There’s no judge, there’s no jury, there’s not even a court reporter to transcribe these so-called hearings – instead it’s the prosecutors that run Courtroom 478.”
The Sourovelis family ultimately managed to strike a deal with prosecutors in order to regain what was rightfully theirs; they had to agree to banish their son, Yanni, from ever returning to the family home. Breaking the agreement could result in another seizure.
This infuriating case makes it all the more apparent why reforms in civil asset forfeiture — such as the currently proposed “FAIR Act” — are essential for Americans to live with liberty and justice under the federal government.