Nation Wakes Up to Horror of Civil Forfeiture

December 1, 2014

By Scott Bullock 

Civil forfeiture is certainly hot right now. But all the recent attention and momentum that has been generated on this issue in the past year is not an accident. It is due to a strategic and concerted effort pursued by IJ during the last several years.

In 2010, we launched our initiative to challenge civil forfeiture—one of the gravest threats to private property rights in the nation today—with the publication of our path-breaking strategic research report, Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws. The report demonstrated just how widespread the problem had become. It graded every state forfeiture law (finding that only three states received a B or higher) and demonstrated that, when federal and state laws make forfeiture easier and more profitable, law enforcement engages in more of it.

We wanted to do with civil forfeiture what we did with eminent domain abuse—take a vitally important but relatively obscure issue that affected the property rights of tens of thousands of Americans and bring it to national prominence using all components of IJ’s program: cutting-edge litigation, media awareness, strategic research, grassroots activism and legislative change.

Right from the start, IJ pursued cutting-edge litigation with an aim toward fundamentally changing the law while also demonstrating the real-world consequences of these laws on ordinary property owners. We scored early victories by opening up Georgia’s aggressive forfeiture program to public scrutiny and by beating back a forfeiture attempt against the Motel Caswell by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston. In August, we filed IJ’s first class-action lawsuit, with which we aim to shut down Philadelphia’s unconstitutional civil forfeiture machine. And, as told in another article in this newsletter, we recently announced two new suits challenging unjust currency seizures by the federal government.

The Policing for Profit report received significant attention from the outset, and media interest in civil forfeiture has grown exponentially since then, with IJ setting the terms of the debate and driving the story by working closely with national reporters and producers. This push in the court of public opinion resulted in a recent front-page article in The New York Times, about our two latest forfeiture lawsuits, generating even more interest in the issue. Additionally, The Washington Post published a devastating four-part investigative series in September and October of this year. And, in October, HBO’s John Oliver aired a scathing and very funny 15-minute rant against civil forfeiture, which has already received more than 3.7 million views on YouTube.

Since the summer, nine major newspapers published editorials criticizing civil forfeiture. In an important op-ed in The Washington Post, two former heads of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Office called civil forfeiture a “complete corruption” and advocated the program’s elimination.

Meanwhile, we continue to be the leaders in conducting important strategic research into how forfeiture affects property owners. We have published eight studies since Policing for Profit, with several more in the works.

And to help educate and mobilize members of the public, we have created a dedicated website,, which provides a central source of information for anyone interested in the topic and in learning how to fight this pernicious practice.

All of these efforts have caused political figures to start proposing change as well. This year, due to the work of IJ’s Minnesota office, Minnesota enacted significantly increased protections for property owners facing civil forfeiture, while U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul introduced legislation in Congress that would go a long way toward curbing many of the outrageous forfeiture policies pursued by the federal government.

Even with this encouraging progress, though, much work remains to be done.

We will not rest until civil forfeiture is either radically reformed or, ideally, abolished. Americans should not lose their property without being convicted of a crime.

Scott Bullock is an IJ senior attorney and directs IJ’s initiative against civil forfeiture.

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