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.


Civil forfeiture is the process through which government officials can seize property from innocent owners without ever charging them with a crime. Even worse, law enforcement agencies get to pad their budgets with the proceeds, creating a perverse financial incentive for them to “police for profit.” The Institute for Justice was one of the first organizations to sound the alarm about this abusive practice, and our comprehensive litigation, communications, research, and activism strategy has brought about a dramatic sea change on the issue. Since 2010, IJ has litigated 16 forfeiture cases and won 12 courtroom victories, securing the return of $4.8 million in seized assets.

Since July 2016, we have filed new cases in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and won back assets for our clients in all three cases, plus a fourth case in Kentucky. Our most recent success comes to us from San Diego, where we won a hard-fought victory on behalf of James Slatic, whose family had more than $100,000 seized by the government without being charged with a crime—let alone convicted of one. In January 2016, armed federal agents and local police burst into James’ legal medical marijuana business in a nightmarish East Germany-like raid and seized every penny, not only in the business’s bank account, but also his personal account and the personal accounts of his wife and two teenage daughters. The District Attorney held the money in legal limbo for months, inventing excuse after excuse to try to justify the department’s unconstitutional actions and giving James and his family no opportunity to prove their innocence. But IJ took up James’ case last fall, and in May, the court finally forced the D.A. to return the family’s money.

We secured another victory this year in our case in Arizona. In October 2016, IJ challenged Arizona’s forfeiture scheme on behalf of Terry and Ria Platt, an elderly couple who had lent their car to their adult son. Police pulled him over for a window-tint infraction and found cash and a small amount of personal-use marijuana in the Platts’ son’s possession, which he admitted belonged to him. Police seized his parents’ car, but never charged anyone with a crime. Terry and Ria tried to remedy the situation by using the state’s own method: petitioning the prosecutor for the vehicle’s return. The couple filled out a complex legal document, attached 29 pages of proof, and sent it in by the 30-day deadline. But the prosecutor—whose office benefits financially from property seized by forfeiture—denied their petition and kept the car because the Platts hadn’t added the words “under penalty of perjury” under their names. When IJ got involved, the prosecutor relented and Terry and Ria got their car back. But prosecutors did not admit wrongdoing, and state law allows prosecutors seven years to decide to proceed with the forfeiture—meaning they could take the car again—so the case continues.

Meanwhile, we continue to litigate our ongoing case in Philadelphia, which we filed in 2014 as IJ’s first-ever class-action lawsuit. For years, the city routinely threw innocent people out of their homes at a moment’s notice, allowing them back in only if—among other conditions—they agreed to waive any rights to resist forfeiture in the future. This practice was an egregious violation of the constitutional rights of thousands of Philadelphians, including our clients Chris and Markela Sourovelis. The city took the Sourovelises’ home, and then, as so often happens, when confronted with IJ’s representation of an otherwise defenseless family, gave the home back. If the Institute for Justice had not brought our case challenging Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine as a class action, the case would have been over and the government might have been able to carry on with its unconstitutional policies against others without fear of judicial review. But by bringing all forfeiture victims in Philadelphia into the suit through the class action procedure, we are making sure that the city will have to answer for its outrageous use of forfeiture and that we will secure a ruling on the constitutionality of the city’s actions.

In addition to securing the return of our clients’ property in court, we’re also playing a key role in changing the law and transforming public debate on this issue. Our efforts have driven legislative change in 24 states over the past three years, with eight states strengthening their laws since July 2016. And now, even the federal government is taking notice. In April, the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration released a blockbuster report examining IRS seizures of currency under federal civil forfeiture laws. The report finds that a staggering 91 percent of civil forfeiture actions under the so-called structuring laws took money that had no connection at all to illegal activity and concludes that the practice “compromised the rights” of businesses and individuals. IJ is cited repeatedly, with references to our strategic research and litigation on behalf of property owners like Ken Quran. The report came just one week after the Department of Justice’s Inspector General released a similarly scathing report critiquing DOJ forfeiture practices and the fact that billions of dollars in seizures were never connected to any criminal charges.

But the threat of forfeiture is by no means erased. In the summer of 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to double down on forfeiture, stating that the Department of Justice will increase its use of this abusive practice and once again assist local and state law enforcement in circumventing state-level protections for property rights and due process. IJ mounted a full-court press in response. Tapping our litigation, strategic research, communications, and activism teams, we generated wall-to-wall media coverage of the Attorney General’s forfeiture directive and stirred outrage across the country and across the political spectrum. In just 24 hours, Institute for Justice attorneys were quoted, IJ forfeiture statistics were cited, and our clients and cases were featured in more than 40 media outlets, including Politico, The Washington Post, NBC News, Fox Business Network, and CNN.

Finally, on the strategic research front, in January 2017 we released “Forfeiture Transparency and Accountability,” which brings to 11 the total number of forfeiture research reports we have produced since 2010. This report takes on the problem of forfeiture from a new perspective. Most state forfeiture laws are in dire need of reform, as they too often leave state legislators and the public in the dark about how forfeiture is being used—and unable to hold law enforcement accountable. This report reveals that many states require little or no tracking of seized property, leaving in doubt even such basic questions as what was seized, who seized it, where it was seized, and how much it was worth. IJ is using this information to drive state reforms, with Colorado becoming the seventh state to close the federal loophole that has generated millions in forfeiture revenue for law enforcement when the state signed into law IJ’s model bill for transparency and anti-circumvention this summer.

Allowing property to be taken from individuals who haven't been convicted or even accused of a crime is anathema to a justice system that comports with the Constitution. IJ will continue fighting in courthouses, state houses, Congress, and the media to defend the gains we've made and to secure the property of all individuals from unconstitutional seizures.


Property rights are the foundation of the free-market system. Civil forfeiture 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 the property and due process rights of all Americans. 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 civil forfeiture cases and reports each act as an opportunity to inform the general public, members of the media, and policymakers on how civil forfeiture is inherently abusive. In addition to defending our clients’ constitutional rights in courts of law, IJ’s award-winning media relations team works with traditional and digital news outlets to win over the court of public opinion. Since July 2016, more than 500 media mentions and exposés have cited IJ, including NBC News, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today and The Atlantic. All told, over the past three years, more than 110 separate media outlets from 35 states and the District of Columbia have published more than 250 editorials decrying civil forfeiture, thanks in large measure to IJ’s outreach on the issue.

In March 2017, IJ’s forfeiture research reached a major milestone when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence cited IJ’s Policing for Profit report in a widely praised concurrence. Criticizing civil forfeiture for its “egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” Justice Thomas referenced IJ’s meticulously collected data to show that “civil forfeiture has in recent decades become widespread and highly profitable.” Justice Thomas even adopted IJ’s line of argument when he noted that law enforcement agencies have “strong incentives to pursue forfeiture” because they often keep what they seize.

Nationwide, IJ has worked with state legislators and Members of Congress to advance reform. These partnerships allow IJ to regularly provide lawmakers with the most up-to-date research, news, and policy analysis regarding civil forfeiture. For instance, IJ Attorneys have assisted Sen. Rand Paul in his efforts to drastically overhaul federal forfeiture reform. Earlier this year, he re-introduced the FAIR Act, which, if enacted, would be the biggest federal reform in decades. Building on those past collaborations, IJ President Scott Bullock was able to co-author an op-ed with Sen. Paul that appeared on, and raise awareness for such a critical bill.

Additionally, IJ’s Communications team now has a member primarily dedicated to covering the latest developments for forfeiture reform, which includes analyzing and tracking bills as well as penning press releases and op-eds to promote those efforts. This combination of communications and legislative affairs has led to major regional newspapers like The Denver Post, The Des Moines Register, The Indianapolis Star and the St. Paul Pioneer Press covering important reforms.

IJ has also been at the forefront for digital media. To promote the story of James Slatic, our production team created a powerful YouTube video that featured footage of the shocking raid on his business. Woven between video of the raid were interviews with James and his family, who all described how civil forfeiture turned their lives upside down. The video was a hit online, and has since been viewed almost 90,000 times.

Another success has been IJ’s column at, one of the largest online news sites. This has given IJ access to a major audience that has been overwhelmingly receptive to IJ’s messaging on civil forfeiture. In July 2017, a op-ed by IJ broke the news that Connecticut had banned civil forfeiture without a criminal conviction. John Stossel, Glenn Beck, and Instapundit soon promoted the article. IJ’s opinion piece also made significant traction on the popular social media site Reddit, where it earned over 54,000 upvotes and made the site’s “front page.” Other forfeiture op-eds, which covered IJ’s San Diego forfeiture case and recent decisions by the U.S. and Pennsylvania Supreme Courts, were also some of the most popular articles on

Finally, IJ will continue to grow our social media networks so that we can continue to inform our supporters about the latest news for civil forfeiture, and engage new audiences. Today, IJ has over 133,000 fans on Facebook, 35,000 followers on Twitter, and almost 18,000 subscribers on YouTube. Content that mentions IJ has often done tremendously well on social media. For instance, IJ was front and center in the vast majority of the news coverage regarding Attorney General Sessions’ forfeiture announcement discussed above; several of those pieces went viral. In less than a month, IJ was cited in roughly 45 media hits about the announcement, which collectively earned nearly 250,000 likes and shares on Facebook, more than 42,000 tweets, and over 11,000 upvotes on reddit.

Whether through print, video or digital media, IJ will continue to document and demonstrate the injustice of civil forfeiture.

Project Link

Amount Approved
$10,000.00 on 5/31/2016 (Check sent: 6/7/2016)

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Beth Stevens
Institute for Justice

Posted 3/31/2016 3:57 PM
Updated   8/9/2017 9:11 AM

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