By Mike Dunn
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A partial settlement came this past week in a federal lawsuit against the office of Philadelphia DA Seth Williams.
At issue was his controversial program that seizes homes and cars from people whose relatives have been charged with drug crimes.
A federal judge has been hearing a class-action suit against the district attorney’s office over its “civil forfeiture” program. Civil rights attorney David Rudovsky says a settlement has now been reached in one of the key aspects of the program: the seizure of houses of parents or other relatives of those charged.
“The district attorney’s office has been seizing and sealing houses without any notice to the property owners, on the theory that the house was somehow used to facilitate drug transactions,” Rudovsky tells KYW Newsradio. “Those houses were being seized without any notice to the parents, to the owners of the house, and they would then have to go to court to try to prove their innocence.”
But Rudovsky says the DA’s office has now agreed to a less aggressive process.
“So, the DA is now agreeing that unless there are very, very unusual circumstances — which are spelled out in the agreement — they will not seize and seal houses without a hearing and notice to the owner. They’ve also agreed not to request what we thought were unconstitutional conditions for returning the house,” he says.
The case is still before a federal judge, and Rudovsky says two other major issues remain. One is the plaintiffs’ contention is that the program creates a conflict of interest, since the DA’s office and police department keep the proceeds of the forfeitures, which Rudovsky says have amounted to about $6 million a year.
The second remaining issue is a challenge to the way forfeiture proceedings are heard in court.
Despite the remaining issues, Rudovsky says he is pleased with this partial settlement.
“It’s a full victory in terms of due process,” he says. “It requires the district attorney’s office to follow what the Constitution requires in terms of notice of hearing, before someone is subjected to losing very valuable property.”
A spokesman for DA Seth Williams says the agreement is tentative, pending a hearing on July 20th.