The most terrifying place in Philadelphia is Courtroom 478 in City Hall. This is where property owners enter Philadelphia’s Civil Forfeiture Machine.
Civil forfeiture—a process by which the government can take and sell your property without ever convicting, or even charging, you with a crime—is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today.
Civil forfeiture cases proceed under the legal fiction that cash, cars, or homes can be “guilty”—leading to such bizarre case names as United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass. But because these cases are technically civil actions, property owners receive few if any of the protections that criminal defendants enjoy. To make matters worse, when law-enforcement agencies take and sell your property, they frequently get to keep all the proceeds for their own use. This gives agencies a direct financial incentive to “police for profit” by seizing and forfeiting as much property as possible.
It’s time to end civil forfeiture. No one should lose their property to law enforcement without being convicted of a crime, and the police shouldn’t profit from taking property.Read More
We may be able to help. The Institute for Justice is a nationwide non-profit public interest law firm committed to protecting Americans’ constitutional rights by ending civil forfeiture. Please share your civil forfeiture horror story with us.Tell us about your case
One year ago, without any warning, agents from the IRS seized Lyndon McLellan’s entire bank account, totalling more than $107,000.
The IRS seized nearly $33,000 from Carole Hinders, even though she did nothing wrong.
The Hirsch brothers run an honest business, and yet the IRS seized their entire bank account and refuses to give it back.
Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine stacks the deck against property owners and leads city officials to police for profit instead of justice. To end these unconscionable and unconstitutional practices, the Institute for Justice and a group of property owners have brought a major, class-action lawsuit in federal court.
Even though she was an innocent property owner, Carol Thomas was caught in the legal nightmare of civil forfeiture.
Zaher El-Ali lost his car to the government because someone else got a DWI with his Chevrolet Silverado.
Russ Caswell and his family have owned and operated the Motel Caswell in Tewksbury, Mass., for two generations. But by using civil forfeiture, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Tewksbury Police Department teamed up to try to forfeit and cash in on the Motel Caswell by using civil forfeiture.
IJ client Tony Jalali nearly lost his $1.5 million office building in Anaheim, California because he rented a suite to a medical marijuana dispensary that was legal under state law.
The government shouldn’t use civil forfeiture to take money from people who’ve done nothing wrong. But the IRS seized the Dehko family’s grocery store’s bank account and they had to fight for a year to get it back.
-Vanita Gupta, American Civil Liberties Union
By Marian R. Williams, Ph.D.
Jefferson E. Holcomb, Ph.D.
Tomislav V. Kovandzic, Ph.D.
Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture chronicles how state and federal laws leave innocent property owners vulnerable to forfeiture abuse and encourage law enforcement to take property to boost their budgets. The report finds that by giving law enforcement a direct financial stake in forfeiture efforts, most state and federal laws encourage policing for profit, not justice.
Policing for Profit also grades the states on how well they protect property owners—only three states receive a B or better. And in most states, public accountability is limited as there is little oversight or reporting about how police and prosecutors use civil forfeiture or spend the proceeds.
Federal laws encourage even more civil forfeiture abuse through a loophole called “equitable sharing” that allows law enforcement to circumvent even the limited protections of state laws. With equitable sharing, law enforcement agencies can and do profit from forfeitures they wouldn’t be able to under state law.
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Thanks to federal civil forfeiture laws, the Internal Revenue Service has seized millions of dollars from thousands of Americans’ bank accounts without proof of criminal wrongdoing. The IRS claimed the funds were illegally “structured”—deposited or withdrawn in small amounts to evade federal reporting requirements imposed on banks—and simply took the money.
Critics of civil forfeiture have long argued that allowing law enforcement to take property and pocket the proceeds creates incentives to put profits ahead of justice. This report shows that the incentives in civil forfeiture laws do change behavior, and not in a good way: Civil forfeiture creates a strong temptation for law enforcement to seize property to pad their own budgets.
Arizona law enforcement’s forfeiture revenue grew almost 400 percent from 2000 to 2011, with the largest share of proceeds spent on salaries and benefits.
Georgia law enforcement agencies routinely fail to publicly report their forfeiture activities, despite a state law and a successful lawsuit requiring disclosure.
From 2001 to 2007, Texas law enforcement’s take from forfeited property tripled—and nearly a quarter was spent on salaries and overtime.
From 2003 to 2010, forfeiture revenue in Minnesota jumped 75 percent, even as crime rates declined, and the average value of forfeited property was only $1,000.
Federal laws encourage local law enforcement to skirt state property rights protections to cash in on seized property.
Civil forfeiture cases are in rem proceedings—meaning that they are technically brought against the property itself rather than its owner. This legal fiction means that police and prosecutors can take and sell your cash, cars, homes or other property without having to convict you or even charge you with any wrongdoing. Fighting back means having to pay for a lawyer yourself or go it alone. And instead of the government having to prove your guilt, under civil forfeiture you must prove your innocence. It is an upside-down world that where the government holds all the cards and has the financial incentive to play them to the hilt.
Criminal forfeiture is when the government takes one’s property following a criminal conviction. Criminal forfeiture cases proceed against the person whose property the government is trying to take, which means that the accused is afforded all of their rights under the Constitution, including the right to have an attorney provided if they cannot afford one. At the same time, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person whose property they are trying to take is guilty of the underlying offense.
Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is what a civil liberties law firm should be. As the national law firm for liberty, we stick to a clear mission engaging in cutting-edge litigation and advocacy both in the courts of law and in the court of public opinion on behalf of individuals whose most basic rights are denied by the government. Our four pillars of litigation are private property, economic liberty, free speech and school choice. Simply put, we seek a rule of law under which individuals can control their destinies as free and responsible members of society.
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Scott Bullock joined the Institute for Justice at its founding in 1991 and now serves as a senior attorney. Although he has litigated in all of the Institute's areas, his current work focuses on property rights and economic liberty cases in federal and state courts.
Dan Alban serves as an attorney with the Institute for Justice. He joined the Institute in September 2010 and litigates cutting-edge constitutional cases protecting free speech, property rights, economic liberty and other individual liberties in both federal and state courts.
Robert Frommer serves as an attorney with the Institute for Justice. He joined the Institute in August 2008 and litigates cases to protect political speech, promote economic liberty, and secure individuals’ rights to private property.
Larry Salzman is an attorney with the Institute for Justice. He joined the Institute in April 2011 and litigates cutting-edge constitutional cases protecting individual rights, including free speech, property rights, and economic liberties, in federal and state courts. He is originally from San Diego.
Darpana Sheth is an attorney with the Institute for Justice. She joined the Institute in February 2010 and litigates cases to promote economic liberty, protect political speech, and secure property rights.