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 $5.2 million worth of unconstitutionally seized assets, and as a direct result of our structuring petitions case against the Internal Revenue Service, $11.8 million has been returned to hundreds of innocent property owners.

Since August 2017, we have launched five new forfeiture lawsuits and secured the return of the majority of property in all cases. Our most recent victory comes to us from Albuquerque in July 2018, where IJ teamed up with Arlene Harjo, whose car was seized by local law enforcement after New Mexico passed landmark reforms abolishing the practice of forfeiture. Completely disregarding the law, the city of Albuquerque continued to enforce their forfeiture program, even after IJ secured the return of Arlene’s vehicle in December 2016. We continued the suit, and this summer a federal judge found the city’s program unconstitutional, agreeing that forfeiture violates due process and is tied to a financial incentive. This ruling strikes directly at the heart of the problems inherent in forfeiture and is a major victory for property owners that IJ will use in our ongoing cases in Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

As evidenced by Albuquerque’s ferocious persistence in seizing property illegally, the need for reform is more critical than ever. That is why, with the Alex C. Walker Foundation’s support, IJ is taking on the highest levels of government power, where the status quo is deeply entrenched: Last July, 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 immediate 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. During the grant term, IJ worked with policymakers in Illinois, Kansas, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, all of which passed major reforms that increase protections for property rights by requiring higher levels of accountability and transparency.

In addition to our legislative progress, IJ launched two forfeiture cases in 2018, securing the return of property in both. The first, a class action in Houston, demonstrates the particularly egregious nature of these seizures. IJ client Anthonia Nwaorie, a 59-year-old nurse and American citizen, had the more than $40,000 she was planning to use to open a medical clinic in her home country of Nigeria seized at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Despite never being charged with a crime and the U.S. Attorney’s Office declining to pursue forfeiture against her property, Antonia was informed that her money wouldn’t be returned until she signed a “hold harmless” agreement surrendering several of her constitutional rights—including the right to sue CBP.

In response, IJ did just that, suing on Anthonia’s behalf and forcing CBP to capitulate almost immediately, returning all of Anthonia’s savings. But IJ’s lawsuit will continue to ensure that agencies cannot abuse Americans’ rights through unconstitutional agreements. The case has sparked national outcry from Forbes, The Washington Post, and Newsweek, and been featured in high-impact local media, including an exclusive in The Texas Tribune.

Meanwhile, we are also putting CBP’s forfeiture scheme on trial in Cleveland, Ohio. In October 2017, former police officer Rustem Kazazi was on his way to Albania when he was stopped by CBP at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. After being searched and let go without being arrested—or even charged with a crime—Rustem learned that CBP was keeping the $58,100 he and his family had been saving their whole lives.

Federal law requires CBP to return all property to forfeiture victims if they are unable to justify a seizure before the courts. But the deadline to initiate legal proceedings came and went and CBP continued to hold the Kazazi family’s money. It wasn’t until IJ launched our case on Rustem’s behalf in May 2018, that CBP admitted no one in the family had done anything wrong and returned the majority of the cash.

The fight is far from over, and IJ will continue to fight for every cent of the Kazazis’ money to be returned at our trial in December 2018. This case has already shone a spotlight on the nightmarish reality of forfeiture, and now, IJ will use our platform at the court to expose the clear disregard for constitutional rights that fundamentally exists within the practice of forfeiture.

IJ also secured two important victories in Wyoming and Texas last year. In Wyoming, we sued the state’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) after they seized Phil Parhamovich’s life savings of $91,800 and pressured him into signing a document that waived his right to any court proceeding. Major news outlets across the country, including Vox, which put out a double feature, took an interest in the case, and in December, a judge ordered every penny of Phil’s savings be returned.

In Texas, we filed a class-action lawsuit to defend the right of forfeiture victims, like our client Gerardo Serrano, to receive a prompt hearing when their property is seized. Following backlash from outlets including The Washington Post and CBS Morning News, CBP returned Gerardo’s truck just one month after the case’s launch, but the case continues until CBP is bound by the court to respect everyone’s due process rights while engaging in forfeiture.

In what may be the most exciting update of this report, IJ is poised to make constitutional history at the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. During the grant term, IJ filed our petition for review on behalf of Tyson Timbs, whose Land Rover was seized by Indiana law enforcement after he was convicted of selling less than $200 worth of drugs. Even after turning his life around, serving a full year on house arrest, and paying his court fees, the Indiana state government refused to return Tyson’s vehicle—an affront the trial court ruled as “grossly disproportional” to the offense.

In addition to providing the U.S. Supreme Court its first opportunity in more than 20 years to address civil forfeiture, the case presents a vitally important yet unresolved question: Does the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protect citizens from excessive fines imposed by state and local governments? This decision has the potential to affect thousands of victims like Tyson and could limit the government’s ability to turn law enforcement into a revenue stream. To put an end to forfeiture’s dangerous profit incentive and scale back the inherently abusive practice that has threatened property rights since its inception, IJ will defend Tyson and the thousands of others he represents.

Across the country in courts, legislative bodies, and the media, the Institute for Justice leads the fight against civil forfeiture. 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 216 times in the media, including USA Today, Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Additionally, in that time Fox, CBS, PBS, ABC, MSNBC, and NPR have featured our forfeiture litigation in their broadcasts. Since IJ launched our End Forfeiture Initiative four years ago, 300 editorials from 124 outlets in 36 states and D.C. have urged reform.

Spreads in non-traditional media such as Bloomberg and Vice focus on the personal stories of our clients and data shared in our strategic research reports. Additionally during the grant term, Vox put out a double feature on our Wyoming case, first breaking the story in an exclusive and then announcing the return of Phil’s property. 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, as well as educate others unfamiliar with the practice.

We also get the word out through our column at, which enables IJ to release the latest forfeiture updates to a large, responsive audience. During the grant term, IJ’s articles highlighting forfeiture and emphasizing the need for reform received over 211,400 views.

Our communications strategy also focuses on impactful placements in local media. For example,, Toledo Blade, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, among others, detailed the Kazazi family’s story; and Houston’s Fox and NBC affiliates featured Anthonia’s case. 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 do these Texas placements introduce Americans to forfeiture abuse happening in their very own backyard, they confirm to the public, policymakers, and law enforcement 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 135,600 Facebook fans, 36,700 Twitter followers, and 20,500 subscribers on YouTube are continually engaged with news of abuse, the status of IJ cases, and reforms across the country. Our video production team showed the egregious reality of forfeiture abuse combined with the heart-wrenching stories of our clients in eye-catching and creative ways, with five original videos produced during the grant term receiving over 302,500 views across social media.

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

Project Link

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

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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

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Beth Stevens
Institute for Justice

Posted 3/31/2017 3:43 PM
Updated   8/6/2018 10:01 AM

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