Earlier this year, Yianni Sourovelis, 22, was arrested for possessing $40 worth of heroin, his first criminal offense. Several weeks later, police and representatives of the district attorney's office showed up at Sourovelis' parents' house in the Philadelphia suburbs and told them they were being evicted.
According to Markella Sourovelis, Yianni's mother, the officers who arrived began screwing doors shut, shutting off electricity, and telling the family their home would be gutted after it was seized by the state. The elder Sourovelises had committed no crimes, but were victims of Pennsylvania's civil forfeiture law, which allowed the city district attorney to take custody of the home just because it believed it was being used to sell drugs, without a trial or other proof of wrongdoing. It is worth repeating, perhaps, that this was Yianni's first offense.
Philadelphia officials seized more than 1,000 houses, about 3,300 vehicles and $44 million in cash, totaling $64 million in civil forfeitures over a 10-year period, according to the lawsuit.
The very authorities taking the property appear to be profiting from it, according to Pennsylvania state records. The Pennsylvania Attorney General's office says about $7 million went straight to the salaries for the Philadelphia District Attorney's office and the police department in just three years. In that same time period, records show the D.A.'s office spent no money on community-based drug and crime-fighting programs, according to the Philadelphia AG's office.
Eventually, the Sourovelises were allowed back into their home, with the caveat that Yianni no longer be allowed to live there. Markella Sourovelis told CNN:
"To me I'm home, but I feel violated at this point. I'm doing things in my house, but I worry is it always going to be my house? Are they going to take it one day like that?"
Civil forfeiture can happen anywhere, but is particularly prevalent in Philadelphia. The Sourovelis family is currently participating in a federal class-action lawsuit against the city aimed at curtailing alleged abuse of the law.
[Image via CNN]