Sunday, March 20, 2005

War on Drugs in Philadelphia: Local Effects, Awful Policies

This weekend Penn Law School held its annual Edward Spaer Symposium, organized by students in the Penn Public Interest Law Program. For those dedicated to public interest law, the Symposium, totally organized by students themselves, provides an amazing array of public interest practitioners, speaking about areas in which they specialize. This year, the entire Symposium was dedicated to the War on Drugs, and the legal issues the arise from it, all the way from the purchase, to the sentencing, to post-sentencing, etc.

I sat in on two of the Symposium's sessions, each of which were interesting. Particularly interesting was one speaker in particular- Penn Professor Louis Rulli- who spoke on the policy of asset forfeiture, where the Government can literally take your home if 'it' is involved in a drug deal. (I put "it" in quotations, because the seizing of someone's home is many times dependent on essentially giving a piece of property a personality, as if it had committed a crime independent of a person. So, the house can be guilty, and therefore must pay the price- being seized by the DA, and then sold. More on that absurdity in a minute.)

Quick rundown of how this all works: Many people have probably heard stories about the DEA or FBI seizing the mansion, yacht, and Porsche of a Miami drug kingpin, and then selling off the property. It is a seemingly efficient sounding way for agents in the War on Drugs to pay for themselves… That is on the federal level, where shows like 20/20 have featured enough horror stories about innocent people's property being seized that Congress passed civil forfeirture reforms. But, here in Philadelphia, this same policy of seizing a home to then sell it is alive and well, and the consequences are ridiculous.

Professor Rulli (a long time public interest lawyer, and former director of Community Legal Services) knows a lot about this process, because he started a clinic where his law students represent poor people who have had their property seized. He assured the audience that each of the four cases that he discussed were chosen totally at random, not picked because they were especially awful. And, after hearing the cases, I can tell you that they are a damning indictment of our current District Attorney, and the way she does business.

And, as you will see with just one case, this practice of the unfettered seizing of homes has two main problems: First, it is unfair, inhumane, and cruel. Second, it is simply short-sighted, stupid public policy.

One case that professor Rulli discussed involved a poor, elderly woman from North Philly. The woman was pretty ill- she used paratransit to travel to the Doctor’s office three times a week to spend the entire day hooked up to a dialysis machine. Luckily for the woman, her neighbors really took care of her. In fact, they looked after her to the point where she actually left her door unlocked, so that the neighbors could come in and out, and make sure she was doing O.K. Here is where the fun begins….

Of course, North Philly being North Philly, there were drugs being sold in her neighborhood. And, one day the cops caught people selling drugs outside of the woman’s home. I suppose because they knew the neighborhood, the suspects immediately turned and ran from the cops, straight through the unlocked door, into this woman’s home. The cops arrested them on the spot. And then, despite the fact that the elderly woman did not know the suspects, and despite the fact that they never accused the woman of having anything to do with anything (remember, she is a sick woman on dialysis), they filed a motion to seize her home. (Here is where they are acting like the home has a personality, and therefore should be subject to “punishment,” because the owner clearly did nothing wrong.)

So, the District Attorney, a locally elected official, is going to seize the home of an innocent, sick woman, and sell it at Sheriff Sale? Why, you ask? The answer, besides total stupidity, is money. The DA gets 100 percent of the proceeds of each home it seizes.

The DA cannot be getting a ton of money for a seized home in a struggling N. Philly neighborhood. But, assuming they get enough, the money does not go into the general Philadelphia revenue pool. It is, in fact, put in a dedicated funding stream straight back to the DA’s office themselves. In other words, they have a great financial incentive to seize people’s homes, whether that person has committed a crime or not, because they get extra cash outside of the normal city funding process.

As I said, this practice is unfair and inhumane. The government is going after the homes of those who cannot afford to defend themselves, and despite the fact that they are not even being accused of any crime whatsoever, their home is taken. In this case, because the woman’s file made it to the Penn clinic, her home was eventually saved. Those who are not so lucky? Too bad, they are simply poor and screwed.

But, lets forget basic moral questions for a second, and think about the public policy ramifications. We have a City with many struggling neighborhoods, that have abandoned homes, unstable populations, a plethora of mortgage foreclosures, and all the problems that stem from those issues. And within that context, we have the DA, the locally elected DA, helping to push these neighborhoods further into decline by taking long time residents out of their homes?

In the end, of course, the whole thing must actually cost Philadelphia money. Forget the real, but still somewhat abstract monetary effect that a Sheriff Sale has on a neighborhood (some estimates have been that it knocks $15,000 off of the property value of its neighboring homes). Forget the psychic cost to a population that sees a longstanding neighborhood resident forced out of her home by officials elected to represent the interests of Philadelphia residents. How about some very basic costs? Where, for example, do you think people are going to go when this happens? How about a homeless shelter ($$$)? How about public housing ($$$)? Can this really be justified?

On a national level, there has been some bipartisan reforms of federal seizure laws, which for example, provide funding for the legal defense of these people and their homes. However, since most people in Philly have their property seized at a much more local level, reform is needed in Harrisburg. But, that said, what the hell is our District Attorney, again, our locally elected, locally funded District Attorney doing? If we do not get one piece of reform passed in Harrisburg, it should not matter locally. Our District Attorney should not have affirmative polices in place that harm Philadelphia residents, and Philadelphia neighborhoods. And what for? A dedicated revenue stream that undoubtedly costs the City plenty of money in other areas. In the annals of “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” this has to be way up there.

Philly and its residents have been delivered too many body blows for the past generation, and more are coming as Medicare and Community Development Blocks Grants are going to be slashed in the Bush budget. The last thing we need is our own elected officials doing their part to inflict blows on those who cannot hit back.


At 11:02 AM, Blogger ACM said...

This reminds me of stories where an old lady (and pillar of the community) lost her subsidized housing after a nephew or grandson living with her was convicted for possessing a joint (or whatever). Surely this is a blind and counter-productive application of the laws. Can't we ever learn from experience?

I guess, in a more cynical mood, I'd have to say this is what comes of your unbending Strict Parent approach to justice -- you get a kind of "you shouldn't have been friendly with the wrong sort of people" finger-wagging in place of any humanitarian impulse. Results have no bearing on their evaluation of such a system, just whether it accords with their sense of moral rectitude.


At 11:11 AM, Blogger DanielUA said...


It is similar. The only big, screaming difference is that public housing is filled with so many controversies already. But, yeah, it is counterproductive, and the laws have been made worse and worse.

I am going to write a follow up post about more awful parts of asset forfeiture, and I will probably include a little about that as well.


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