Philadelphia is known as the “City of Brotherly Love,” but for residents who have had their homes seized under the city’s civil forfeiture scheme, it hardly seems brotherly.

Sisters Tracy and Sheila Clements lived together in their childhood home bequeathed to them by their mother. On April 21, 2010, their brother, William Clements, rushed through the door with the police in hot pursuit. William was arrested and eventually convicted of drug-related offenses.

The city, however, decided to seize Tracy and Sheila’s home under Pennsylvania civil forfeiture law. William didn’t live in the house; in fact, Tracy and Sheila had refused to let William live there. And neither Tracy nor Sheila was ever charged with a crime. Still, they were forced to appear in court no fewer than 17 times before a judge denied the city’s forfeiture motion. Undeterred, the Philadelphia District Attorney has filed an appeal. Hopefully, the appellate court will see that justice is done and return the home to its rightful owners.

Philadelphia’s seizures netted law enforcement over $5.9 million in 2009–2010 alone, $2.5 million of which was paid out in salaries. This direct link between salaries and asset seizures creates a perverse incentive that encourages the overuse of civil asset forfeiture laws. The result: Citizens are deprived of their property without being charged with a crime.

The Philadelphia DA’s office maintains that residents such as the Clements sisters have an innocent owner defense that they can assert, meaning if they can prove they had no knowledge of a crime occurring on their property, their property can be returned. In other words, the Philadelphia DA believes that people should have to go to the trouble and expense to hire lawyers and prove their own innocence in order to be allowed to keep their own property. This is fundamentally unfair and can result in abuses, since not everybody will have the knowledge, resources, or ability to contest the government’s seizure of their property.

Some other examples of civil forfeiture in Philadelphia include:

  • Rochelle Bing’s house was taken by the city after the police raided it and charged her son with selling crack cocaine. No drugs were found in the home, and Bing was never charged with a crime.
  • The city seized Takeela Burney’s house because her son was arrested for selling $20 worth of cocaine.
  • Sandra Leino’s house was seized after her husband was accused of selling prescription pills outside their home. The city didn’t even wait for the forfeiture motion to be granted before throwing out a lifetime of possessions and leaving the Leino family homeless. The city eventually withdrew the forfeiture motion—but only after the bank foreclosed on the house because Leino couldn’t make the mortgage payments.

The heartbreaking stories of lives torn apart by civil asset forfeiture are many, but the over-broad laws and the perverse incentives for law enforcement make these seizures unlikely to stop without the intervention of state legislatures and Congress. It is time to step up to the plate and reform these laws.