Project Report:
Ending Civil Forfeiture and Protecting Private Property
- Investigates causes tending to destroy or impair the free-market system.


Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take property on the mere allegation it was involved in a crime, and the Institute for Justice is using all of the tools in our public interest arsenal to end this practice. Our work will reinvigorate constitutional protections for private property and limit government power.


Every year, police and prosecutors seize millions in cash, homes, businesses, and other private property across the country. This process, known as civil forfeiture, requires no criminal charge or conviction, but rather, the mere suspicion of association with a crime. And the very agencies that seize these assets every day have a perverse incentive to continue the unconstitutional practice: most forfeiture laws give law enforcement a large cut of the proceeds.

Civil forfeiture has been brought into the national spotlight by the Institute for Justice (IJ) through our path-breaking litigation, communications, legislative counseling, and original strategic research. Since the start of IJ’s initiative to end forfeiture in 2010, we have secured for our clients the return of over $5.1 million of unconstitutionally seized assets—including their homes, cars, businesses, and cash.

Since August 2017, we have launched two new forfeiture lawsuits and secured the return of all property in both cases. We continue to litigate ongoing forfeiture cases in Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania.

Yet even as momentum for reform continues to grow, we have much work to do as we take on the highest levels of government power, where the status quo is deeply entrenched. This was clear last July when, surrounded by law enforcement officials, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice planned to increase its use of civil forfeiture, and to once again assist local and state law enforcement in circumventing state-level protections for property rights and due process. IJ responded swiftly with a full-court press in the media that stirred outrage across the country and across the political spectrum. We also spearheaded a coalition of 21 organizations ranging from American Civil Liberties Union to the Goldwater Institute, to call on Congress to take swift action and reform the broken forfeiture system, not expand it.

Back in 2015, we warned that modest reforms were not enough to protect Americans’ property and could easily be cut back, endangering generations to come. Despite Attorney General Sessions’ campaign to overturn the already insufficient reforms, IJ’s forfeiture initiative continues to see success, with the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passing a law to defund the federal adoption of state seizures.

Meanwhile, IJ secured a swift victory last fall in our case out of Eagle Pass, Texas. In September 2015, Kentucky native Gerardo Serrano faced the federal government’s forfeiture machine head-on when he was attempting to cross the border into Mexico to visit his cousin. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency performed a warrantless search on Gerardo’s nearly new truck and, despite finding nothing illegal, still seized the vehicle. With no criminal charge, conviction, or court approval for the seizure, Gerardo was left paying monthly bills on a truck that sat in a government impound lot for two years—with no opportunity to go before a judge to plead his case.

IJ took up Gerardo’s case in September 2017 and secured robust coverage, including The Washington Post and CBS Morning News. As a result of the case and media backlash, CBP returned Gerardo’s property in October—just a month after our case launched. The lawsuit continues, however, as we filed it as a class action in order to protect other victims like Gerardo and their right to receive a prompt hearing when their property is seized.

In Wyoming, IJ successfully represented musician Phil Parhamovich and secured the return of his life savings of $91,800. Much like Gerardo, Phil was never charged with or convicted of a crime but his private property was forfeited nonetheless. Phil was stopped on I-80 by Wyoming Highway Patrol for allegedly not staying in his lane and not wearing a seatbelt. Officers searched Phil’s minivan and found the cash, which he was planning to use as a down payment on the recording studio of his dreams. Law enforcement pressured Phil into signing a document that gave the money to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and waived Phil’s right to any court proceeding.

IJ sued the state’s DCI, which had filed a petition claiming the property had been abandoned and asked a judge for the forfeited money at a hearing that Phil was never made aware of. Major news outlets across the country, including Vox, which put out a double feature, took an interest in the case, as did multiple Wyoming legislators who showed interest in working with IJ to advance meaningful reforms in the state. In December, a judge ordered every penny of Phil’s savings to be returned.

Across the country in courts, legislative bodies, and the media, the Institute for Justice leads the fight against civil forfeiture and its abusive profit incentive. By defending the victories we have secured in the past and continuing to bring cutting-edge constitutional challenges, IJ works to vigorously protect property rights as the Founders intended.


Property rights are the foundation of a free society. Civil forfeiture, however, undermines the rule of law by giving law enforcement at all levels of government broad power to take property from individuals who haven’t committed any wrongdoing. Moreover, police and prosecutors often get to keep all or most of the proceeds from civil forfeiture for themselves, which incentivizes them to pursue innocent owners at the expense of legitimate law enforcement priorities. The Institute for Justice’s civil forfeiture initiative is reinvigorating the property rights protections enshrined in the Constitution and ensuring that all Americans have the legal protections they need to participate in a vibrant free-market system.


Civil forfeiture is a national problem that threatens every American’s property. IJ’s strategic research has shown that few states provide adequate protections against civil forfeiture, and federal law makes the problem even worse by giving state-level law enforcement officials opportunities to bypass those state-level protections that do exist. Police and prosecutors should not be able to take property from innocent people, and IJ is engaging courts, policymakers, activists, and media figures to end civil forfeiture at all levels of government.

Information Dissemination

IJ’s unique brand of public interest litigation effectively showcases the abusive nature of civil forfeiture before courts, policymakers, and the public at large. All of our communications work is coordinated with our cases, research, and other activity to provide a strategic attack on forfeiture.
A key part of that strategy is to secure coverage in major national news outlets. Since the grant was approved in August 2017, IJ’s forfeiture initiative has been cited 177 times in the media, including USA Today, Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Additionally, in that time Fox, CBS, PBS, ABC, MSNBC, and NPR have featured our forfeiture litigation in their broadcasts.

Spreads in non-traditional media such as Slate and Vice focus on the personal stories of our clients, such as James Slatic and his family, whose business and personal bank accounts were seized after a raid on their legal medical marijuana business. Meanwhile, we capture a different audience through publications like Time and quotes in Reuters. With a continually growing range of audiences, we are uniquely able to find individuals who appreciate our forfeiture work and support the need for immediate reform.

We also get the word out through our column at, which enables IJ to release the latest forfeiture updates to a large, responsive audience. One op-ed, on a proposed bill that would totally abolish civil forfeiture in Alabama, garnered over 20,000 views in less than two weeks.

Our communications strategy also focuses on impactful placements in local media. For example, our fight to win back Gerardo’s truck in Eagle Pass was showcased in an op-ed for The Texas Tribune penned by one of IJ’s attorneys. Not only did the piece introduce Texans to forfeiture abuse happening in their very own backyard, it confirmed to the public, policymakers, and law enforcement themselves, that IJ will be there to protect private property when these seizures occur.

IJ’s social media interaction is no different than our other means of strategic communication: our 136,000 Facebook fans, 36,000 Twitter followers, and 19,000 subscribers on YouTube are continually engaged with news of abuse, the status of IJ cases, and reforms across the country. Our video production team shows the egregious reality of forfeiture abuse combined with the heart-wrenching stories of our clients in eye-catching and creative ways—so much so that our Eagle Pass case launch video (available at received over 226,000 views on social media within just one month. Our case launch video for San Diego forfeiture, which showed actual footage of law enforcement raiding the Slatics’ business, was featured on YouTube’s home page and has reached over 515,000 views to date.

IJ will continue to lead the conversation and blaze the trail for forfeiture reform in policy, courts, and communities nationwide.

Project Link

Amount Approved
$10,000.00 on 8/9/2017 (Check sent: 8/21/2017)

  Related Organizations
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IJ Secures Return of Gerardo's Truck
Gerardo Serrano celebrating the return of his truck in Eagle Pass, Texas.

IJ Secures Return of Gerardo's Truck


Beth Stevens
Institute for Justice

Posted 3/31/2017 3:43 PM
Updated   2/21/2018 8:19 PM

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