Many clients come to Penn’s Civil Practice Clinic (CPC) seeking to ensure safe shelter, from landlord-tenant cases to fraudulent deed transfer and quiet title work. As Philadelphia boasts one of the highest homeownership rates among major American cities, many low-income families here benefit from the financial stability and sense of community that homeownership provides. Yet, an ever-increasing number of homeowners face civil forfeiture actions brought against their homes after drug activity with some ‘nexus’ to the property is alleged.
The Commonwealth may raise forfeiture petitions without regard to whether there was a conviction or whether the homeowner herself had any involvement in the alleged crimes. If the homeowner does not successfully defend against the forfeiture action, the property is sold and proceeds are kept by the District Attorney’s Office, which brings and prosecutes such actions.
This past year, the CPC represented three different families defending forfeiture actions. All three clients were older homeowners facing potential loss of their family home based on alleged drug activity by a younger relative. Settling such cases without a lengthy fight often requires the homeowner to bar that younger family member from their home indefinitely. Our CPC students brought enormous dedication to providing the legal services the clients needed in order to fight for their homes and families. At least one case was resolved successfully, while settlement negotiations continue in another, and trial looms for a third.
In addition to client advocacy, CPC students and faculty are supporting efforts by local and national media to bring attention to Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture practices, in hope of spurring broader systemic reform. A recent issue of The New Yorker featured an excellent article on unjust enforcement of civil forfeiture laws nationwide and highlighted the work of CPC faculty and students in helping clients to defend their homes.