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


Civil forfeiture represents one of the most serious assaults on property rights in the nation today, and the Institute for Justice is using all of the tools in our public interest arsenal to end this unconscionable and unconstitutional practice. We file lawsuits in key jurisdictions to convince courts to enforce legal protections for private property and vindicate the principle that no one should ever lose their property without first being convicted of a crime. Our award-winning communications team leverages our clients’ stories in the media, while our strategic research team produces innovative social science research that strengthens our arguments in court and the court of public opinion. Additionally, we work with non-traditional allies to generate grassroots momentum for reform.


As the foundation of all other rights, property rights are vital to upholding the rule of law, and the scourge of civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to individual liberty today. IJ was one of the first organizations sounding the alarm about this heinous practice, and we’ve persevered against long odds to fight it, setting the terms of the debate through a comprehensive approach that combines our work inside the courtroom with sophisticated communications, strategic research, and grassroots activism campaigns.

For instance, this fall we won a significant victory in our class action lawsuit on behalf of Philadelphia property owners. For years, the city routinely threw people out of their homes at a moment’s notice, allowing them back in only if—among other conditions—they waived any rights to resist forfeiture in the future. For the thousands of Philadelphians like IJ client Chris Sourovelis, whose property was seized despite the fact that he was innocent of any crime, it was an egregious violation of their constitutional rights. The system was built on the city’s assumption that its residents wouldn’t be able to fight back, but standing up to government bullies is exactly what IJ makes possible, and in November, the city agreed to end its “seize-and-seal” practice of taking homes—effective immediately. Philadelphia residents are now much better protected from unfair forfeiture practices, but we will continue to hold city officials accountable for their policies until they stop their unconstitutional seizures altogether.  To learn more about the city's forfeiture scheme, watch the video below:

We also initiated landmark reforms in New Mexico, where a new state law effectively ends civil forfeiture. The law is a model for the rest of the country and we are leveraging that success to inspire change in other state legislatures. However, reluctant to lose the revenue forfeiture brought in, cities across New Mexico are ignoring the law and continuing to seize property without convicting its owner of a crime. This is just one example of IJ’s indispensable role as the National Law Firm for Liberty—because it is not enough simply to pass legislation; we must also ensure that, once enacted, these reforms are enforced. We filed suit in Albuquerque in November to shut down the city’s illegal forfeiture program once and for all.

Furthermore, IJ constantly is engaging in new and creative ways to protect property owners. In July, we filed remissions petitions on behalf of Ken Quran, a North Carolina convenience store owner, and Randy Sowers, a Maryland dairy farmer, whose bank accounts were seized by the IRS under civil forfeiture laws. Because Ken withdrew his money in amounts less than $10,000, and Randy made deposits of under $10,000, the IRS invoked “structuring” laws to take their money. Since then, the IRS has announced that it will limit the use of structuring laws to real criminals attempting to evade bank reporting laws, but the government has kept hold of Ken and Randy’s bank accounts. So, with IJ’s help, they filed petitions for “remission or mitigation” to request voluntary relief from the executive branch and get their money back. The government recognized that no one should lose their bank account because they withdrew or deposited the “wrong” amount of money when it made its policy change, and now it needs to follow through and return Ken and Randy’s money to its rightful owners.

Meanwhile, we are also battling civil forfeiture laws in Kentucky, where we are litigating on behalf of a college student named Charles Clarke. Just before he was scheduled to board a plane at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Charles’ $11,000 in savings were seized by law enforcement officials who claimed that his checked bag smelled like marijuana. However, they couldn’t find anything illegal on his person or in any of his bags, and they never charged him with a crime. No one should have to prove their innocence in order to keep their hard-earned property; instead, the government should have to prove their guilt in order to take it. That’s why we’ve partnered with Charles to challenge the government’s civil forfeiture program and get his money back.

In the past year, IJ won three civil forfeiture cases and filed three new cases. These are amongst the most time- and resource-intensive cases that we litigate, but we have proven again and again that we have the knowledge, experience, and stamina to continue to fight this pernicious practice and defend innocent property owners until civil forfeiture is abolished nationwide.


Property rights are the foundation of the free-market system. 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 at least some 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 due process 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

Each civil forfeiture case is a platform to educate people across America on this abusive practice, and we work in the court of public opinion to inform everyone from policymakers and members of the media to the general public of the abuse of forfeiture laws. IJ’s award-winning media relations team tells our clients’ stories in mainstream and targeted news outlets to reach new audiences, and our work regularly is covered by high-profile outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

What’s more, our social media efforts provide unique opportunities to generate broader interest in our cases and issues. We have grown our social media network over the years to attract individuals who are not only interested in IJ’s work, but also will engage with us by leaving comments and sharing the news items, videos, and other content we post. Our approach has helped us gain more than 127,000 Facebook fans, 29,300 Twitter followers, and 15,400 YouTube subscribers, and we are constantly attracting new audiences who share the news items, videos, and other content we post.

In particular, our YouTube videos are an effective way to both tell our clients’ stories and share our message of liberty. Each video explains one of our cases or initiatives in quick and compelling ways that resonate with the viewer, clearly illustrating the threat to liberty that we are fighting. IJ videos are also frequently embedded by bloggers in posts about our cases, helping drive online attention to our lawsuits, and they are often used as B-roll footage on television news stories, ensuring that our cases reach those who otherwise may not hear about our work.

Finally, our strategic research team produces cutting-edge social science research to provide real-world context for our arguments. Our landmark report, Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture, catapulted the issue to national prominence and remains, even five years after its release, the go-to resource for lawmakers seeking to reform forfeiture laws. In fact, in 2015 alone, the report has been cited more than 65 times in the media. To meet the continued demand for information, and to enhance IJ’s work in court, we released an updated and expanded second edition of Policing for Profit in November. The new report provides the most comprehensive examination of civil forfeiture laws and forfeiture statistics yet compiled, and thanks to our effective communications strategy, it has already garnered significant media coverage. With this multi-faceted approach, we have drawn unprecedented attention to the issue of civil forfeiture, converging topic and timing to convince audiences that this unconscionable practice must be abolished once and for all.

Project Link

Amount Approved
$10,000.00 on 6/5/2015 (Check sent: 7/13/2015)

  Related Organizations
Institute for Justice  

Policing for Profit

Policing for Profit

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Beth Stevens
Institute for Justice

Posted 3/17/2015 10:32 AM
Updated   12/7/2015 11:21 AM

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