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


Civil forfeiture is the ability of law enforcement to seize homes, cars, cash, and other property on the mere suspicion that it was involved in a crime—no conviction or arrest required. The Institute for Justice is working to counter this unconstitutional practice through path-breaking litigation, strategic research, legislative reform, and award-winning communications.

Philadelphia Forfeiture
IJ clients Chris and Markela Sourovelis outside their home, which was seized through Philadelphia’s forfeiture program, even though they had committed no crime. IJ successfully challenged this abusive system, bringing relief to more than 35,000 property owners.


Nearly every state, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have civil forfeiture laws. And while state and local laws vary, every year, police and prosecutors across the United States take hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, cars, homes and other property—regardless of the owners’ guilt or innocence. What’s more, even if certain states have protections in place limiting civil forfeiture, federal law allows local and state law enforcement to circumvent state laws to still profit at the expense of innocent property owners. But through IJ’s strategic litigation, groundbreaking publications scrutinizing the practice, and bipartisan efforts to enact legislative reforms, IJ has taken this issue from legal obscurity and driven it to the nation’s highest court in just under a decade. In addition, we have successfully returned homes, cars, cash, and other property, worth a total of $5.2 million, to our clients. This progress is nothing short of extraordinary, and is especially exemplified in our most recent achievements.

In a groundbreaking decision handed down in February, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously sided with IJ in Timbs v. Indiana, ruling that the U.S. Constitution prohibits state and local governments from imposing excessive fines, fees, and forfeitures, just as it prevents the federal government from doing so. As you may recall, we are representing Tyson Timbs, a young man whose recovery from opioid addiction was made far more difficult when Indiana law enforcement used forfeiture to seize his vehicle. Before overcoming addiction and turning his life around, Tyson was convicted of selling $225 worth of drugs. He pleaded guilty and served out his sentence, which included house arrest, probation, attending drug treatment programs, and paying $1,200 in fees. Yet the state of Indiana took advantage of its forfeiture laws and seized Tyson’s $40,000 truck, which he purchased with a small inheritance. In doing so, the state effectively imposed on Tyson an additional fine that was far greater than his court-ordered penalty. As the trial court judge put it, this seizure was “grossly disproportionate” to Tyson’s crime.

But the Indiana Supreme Court disagreed, claiming the specific provision of the Bill of Rights does not apply to states and opted not to enforce it. That opinion had frightening implications for civil liberties: Without the Constitution’s protection against excessive fines, state and local law enforcement could confiscate everything a person owns based on a minor crime or, using civil forfeiture, no crime at all. By vindicating Tyson Timbs’ rights at the nation’s highest court, IJ is protecting Americans from abuse at all levels of government—federal, state, and local.

Coverage in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the New York Post, among others, propelled IJ’s victory to the forefront of national conversation. The decision was also featured on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. Armed with the Court’s historic opinion, and a groundswell of support, IJ has the ammunition to take on other abusive property rights schemes throughout the nation. Please find an article from The New York Times featuring this landmark victory attached to this report.

Just months before IJ presented the Court with its first opportunity to re-examine the constitutionality of forfeiture in over two decades, we dismantled the city of Philadelphia’s draconian forfeiture program, ushering in long-awaited justice to the more than 35,000 Philadelphians who were stripped of their property and their constitutional rights.

Until IJ brought suit, Philadelphia routinely seized homes, cars, and cash without notice. It forced owners to navigate the notorious “Courtroom 478,” where so-called “hearings” were run entirely by prosecutors, without any judges or court-appointed lawyers to defend property owners. Prosecutors continually demanded that property owners appear in court, sometimes ten times or more. Missing even a single “hearing” meant that prosecutors could permanently take an owner’s property, sell it, and use the proceeds for any law-enforcement purpose they wished. More than 35 percent of proceeds went to salaries, including the salaries of the very officials seizing and forfeiting property, thus creating a perverse incentive to seize property for forfeiture.

IJ put all this to an end by securing two sweeping consent decrees—which received preliminary approval in May—that curb the financial incentives under which law enforcement keeps and uses forfeiture revenue, fundamentally reform procedures for seizing and forfeiting property, and establish a $3 million fund to compensate those whose property was wrongly confiscated.

Our latest case surrounding forfeiture takes us back to Pennsylvania—this time to the city of Lancaster. Every year, the Lancaster County District Attorney’s office uses forfeiture to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and other property from Pennsylvania citizens. Under Pennsylvania law, the DA’s office is able to spend the proceeds with few restrictions and almost no public oversight. Carter Walker, a young reporter for LNP Media Group in Lancaster, is working hard to change that.

As part of his investigative reporting, Carter filed a public records request with the local DA’s office under Pennsylvania’s “Right-to-Know” law, asking for information about what kind of property the DA is taking through forfeiture and how the office is spending the proceeds. When the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ordered the DA to make this information available, he opted to fight Carter’s request for information in court. That’s when IJ stepped in, teaming up with Carter to ensure that district attorneys across Pennsylvania must make information about their forfeiture practices and the property they confiscate under them available to the public.

Local reporting, like Carter’s and LNP’s, plays a crucial role in the national fight for forfeiture reform by giving the public—and public interest litigators—the information they need to hold public officials accountable. This information often comes from public records requests made under state or federal transparency laws. By analyzing records of individual forfeitures and expenditures of forfeiture proceeds, reporters can provide a snapshot of how the system operates and shine a light on potential wrongdoing. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” By joining forces with Carter and LNP, IJ will help shed light on forfeiture in Pennsylvania. In the process, we will advocate for the right of all Pennsylvanians to know how their government is taking property and how it spends the proceeds.

IJ remains vigilant, prepared to step in on behalf of ordinary Americans and advocate in court to keep government adhering to the timeless principles the Founding Fathers laid out, protecting—not trampling—property rights.


Property rights are the foundation of all our rights in a free society. But across the country, governments violate property rights through the practice of civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture laws allow cash, cars, homes, and other property to be seized when the property is merely suspected of being involved with criminal activity. Under these laws, property owners can permanently lose their property without even being charged or convicted of a crime—a gross violation of people’s fundamental constitutional rights.


Every American’s right to own and enjoy their property hangs in the balance under the threat of civil forfeiture. Millions of dollars in property are seized every year and forfeiture funds continue to grow exponentially: For example, the federal government took $29 billion in cash and other property in just 14 years, and state and local governments have taken hundreds of millions more. IJ engages courts, policymakers, activists, and the media nationwide to expose this harmful practice and advocates for greater protections in state and federal law; secures the return of this unlawfully seized property; and sets precedent in state and federal courts that others can rely on to win back their property. Since 2010, we have litigated 22 cases; secured the return of $5.2 million in property; helped usher in significant reforms in 24 states, and propelled this issue to national prominence.

Information Dissemination

Our litigation, strategic research, and activism provide us with a stream of news and events that present powerful opportunities to bolster the impact of our victories and create interest and outrage among the general public. In this grant term alone, IJ secured 402 media hits featuring our work combatting civil forfeiture. Placement in outlets such as USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, SCOTUSblog, Bloomberg, and the Associated Press shined a light on forfeiture abuse and IJ’s client-focused communications raised the profile of our campaign to end forfeiture.

At the start of the 116th Congress, IJ hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill featuring Congressmen Tim Walberg (R-MI) and Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and two IJ clients. The event was well attended by more than 40 staffers and set the stage for IJ to prioritize federal forfeiture reform with the new leadership in Congress. At the event, IJ shared our latest white paper, Civil Forfeiture, Crime Fighting and Safeguards for the Innocent: An Analysis of Department of Justice Forfeiture Data. Using the DOJ’s own data, IJ found that the DOJ cannot substantiate its claim that forfeiture fights crime and the Department’s new safeguards are unlikely to prevent innocent people from losing their property unjustly.

IJ’s legislative team continues to use this white paper, along with an IJ poll that found the majority of American adults oppose forfeiture, to stimulate forfeiture reforms nationwide. And IJ’s December 2018 report, Forfeiture in Arizona: An Institute for Justice Analysis of FY2018 Reporting Data, which confirms that the incremental reforms Arizona enacted in 2017 are lacking and abuse still persists, made its way into the hands of key Arizona legislators this session.

Through generating increased awareness of forfeiture abuse, IJ has amassed a groundswell of support and laid the groundwork for future litigation and lasting reforms. All the work described in this section was, as always, performed consistent with IJ’s tax status and applicable IRS regulations. Similarly, all Foundation funds were used in a manner consistent with the requirements laid out in the grant agreement with IJ.

Project Link

Amount Approved
$10,000.00 on 8/1/2018 (Check sent: 8/27/2018)

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Posted 1/17/2018 11:27 AM
Updated   6/26/2019 5:09 PM

U.S. Supreme Court Victory
Tyson Timbs speaks with reporters outside the U.S. Supreme Court. In his case, the Court unanimously ruled that the U.S. Constitution prohibits state and local governments from imposing excessive fines and fees, just as it prevents the federal government from doing so.

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