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FAR FROM HOME: Sandra Leino’s former home is up for sheriff’s sale after the DA forced her out and she ultimately lost the property to foreclosure. Leino and her three kids were made homeless in the process.

The only conspicuous thing about Courtroom 478, located along a dark stretch of hallway in an obscure corner of Philadelphia’s City Hall, is the knot of people you’re likely to find standing outside of it, crying.

One morning last August, Sandra Leino was among them.

Leino had been coming to Room 478 off and on for the better part of two years in an attempt to keep her house from being seized by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office — a fight that had sapped the limited resources of Leino’s family to the point that she had, finally, on that morning, acknowledged defeat.

“They took everything from me,” she said, visibly shaking outside the courtroom.

Leino is one of thousands of Philadelphia residents who each year find themselves facing the seizure of their possessions — cars, cash and real estate — via “civil asset forfeiture,” a legal construct that lets law-enforcement agencies seize property linked to crime and keep the proceeds. In Pennsylvania, civil forfeiture is carried out primarily under state drug laws. The Philadelphia DA brings 300 to 600 real-estate forfeiture cases per year, and thousands of cases against small amounts of cash seized in police stops that sometimes, but not always, result in arrests — together bringing nearly $6 million into its coffers annually.

In a series of reports for the Philadelphia City Paper [“The Cash Machine,” Nov. 29, 2012] and ProPublica [Law to clean up ‘Nuisances’ Costs Innocent People their Homes, Aug. 5, 2013], this reporter has documented how the Philadelphia DA has made civil forfeiture into a vast, unaudited revenue stream, profiting from an upside-down legal process through which the DA has the power to bleed property owners dry of financial resources and imperil homeowners with minimal or no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Sandra Leino’s is just one of these stories — but one that casts in sharp relief the difference between the way the District Attorney’s Office describes the goals of its forfeiture programs to the public and the way those targeted by forfeiture experience it.

The Philadelphia DA characterizes its forfeiture program not as a revenue generator but as a public service: depriving criminals of the spoils of their crimes, abating “nuisance properties” that terrorize neighborhoods and, according to a recent statement, working to “establish responsible property ownership.” But Sandra Leino’s story paints a very different picture of how the DA uses forfeiture — less like a scalpel than a battering ram.

Long before the forfeiture action against her house would be completed, and without a judge or jury ever seeing her face, Leino would be forced from her house and made homeless along with her three children. She would lose her most precious possessions, and ultimately be deprived of her family’s most valuable asset — all without Leino ever being accused of any crime.

Her husband, Sam, was accused. On Feb. 22, 2010, police officers arrived at the family’s house, at 2729 Orthodox St. in Bridesburg, to arrest Sam on charges of selling prescription pills. The officers would later testify that they observed Sam handing over small objects in exchange for money outside the house. After executing a search warrant, police recovered various painkillers. (Sandra Leino says her husband was partially disabled from a truck accident and took the painkillers himself, legally, for his pain.)

Sandra Leino and her three children were not accused of any crime; nowhere in police reports is there even a hint that any of them had done anything wrong. That didn’t stop the DA from filing a motion to seize the Leino’s house that May — and then, for reasons that remain unclear, kicking them out of it the same month. (The DA’s Office responded to inquiries with a short statement describing the forfeiture action, but would not explain why Leino and her family were made to leave). Leino, her husband (out on bail awaiting his trial), and their children were forced from their home with nowhere to go. They stayed in a motel for one week.

“We couldn’t afford living in a hotel [long-term],” Leino explains, her voice rising and breaking, and then rising again. “Well, my husband grew up in the backwoods in Jersey, and we always kept sleeping bags in the back of our vehicle in case the kids got cold. … So what we did was we went in the backwoods where he grew up, and we slept there.”

Then a relative whom they had contacted offered to take them in. Sam and Sandra Leino slept in the basement for the next five months, while their three children crammed into a spare room with two small beds, taking turns for the third spot on the floor.
While the family navigated a homelessness imposed on them by the District Attorney’s Office, the DA asked the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections to conduct a “clean and seal” operation on the Leinos’ house. City officials arrived at the house shortly after the forfeiture motion had been filed (not granted) and began throwing out the Leinos’ possessions — among them pictures of the Leinos’ children growing up, antiques they had collected together as a hobby and a 5-gallon jar of pennies the family had filled as a way to save money.

“We’d fill a spaghetti jar —  I figured out it was $15 when you filled it up  — and dump it into the jug,” Sandra Leino recalls. “I figured it would be worth something someday.”
Samuel Leino, who maintained his claim of innocence, went to trial in January 2012 and was found guilty of one count of possession with intent to distribute, and sentenced to three to six years.

Sandra was eventually able to rent a new house, about five blocks from the old one. But on her own now, and unable to pay rent on top of the mortgage on the house she was barred from entering, she began missing mortgage payments. When the DA did eventually withdraw its forfeiture case against the Leinos’ house, it was only because the bank had already foreclosed.
Leino says the house is for sale now, for a little more than what she and her husband paid for it in 2005. “I see it every day on the bus,” she says.

If that outcome represents the DA’s goal of “establishing responsible ownership,” it’s difficult to see how. Leino and her kids live together in the same neighborhood as before, while her old home sits unoccupied. Her husband, the only person in the scenario accused of a crime, is already being punished in prison, as he would have been with or without the DA’s attempt to seize his house.

And even his case — the case, that is, upon which the seizure of the family’s house was based — raises questions about whether justice has been served. Four of the police officers who surveilled and arrested Sam Leino are among a group of six narcotics officers whose credibility has been effectively dismissed by the DA’s Office itself after allegations were made in open court that they were part of a drug-dealing ring within the Philadelphia Police Department.

The DA has been systematically dropping cases brought by these officers, including about 285 prosecutions mostly related to felony drug arrests. But Sam Leino’s conviction still stands. How many times the DA’s forfeiture unit has seized property based on the testimony of these officers is not presently clear.

This piece appeared in the 8/16/2013 edition of the Philadelphia City Paper