Phillip Suderman · March 14, 2024

ARLINGTON, Va.—The state of Illinois holds five billion dollars in unclaimed property, and David Knott wants to help the rightful owners file paperwork to get it back. But Illinois won’t let David do that work unless he holds a completely irrelevant license.  

It’s a common problem. Every day, more and more accounts get misplaced, bills aren’t logged properly, and estates aren’t appropriately filed. There’s so much misplaced property that the state of Illinois has even started diverting it to fund its pension obligations. The State Treasurer is supposed to return property when the owner comes forward, but people seldom know that the state is even holding their property, much less how to claim it. So that’s where David comes in. He runs a small business, called United Asset Recovery, Inc., that searches state databases to locate owners of unclaimed property and then helps people file paperwork to get it back. David works on contingency, so the only way he makes money is if he successfully recovers the property.

For a long time, he was able to do so in Illinois without incident. However, in 2021 the state sent David a cease-and-desist letter, telling him he could not help anyone submit a claim without a private detective license. To get licensed, he would have to study and pass an exam on topics that have nothing to do with his work searching government databases—including firearms handling, crime scene investigation, and electronic surveillance. The state would also require David to work for three years as an apprentice to a licensed private eye, years David could not work helping people reclaim their property.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” said David. “My clients are happy, my business is providing a useful service, and now after years of helping people and companies reclaim their rightful property, Illinois wants me to get a totally irrelevant license. It’s counter to the primary goal of the program.”

This license isn’t just nonsensical—it’s unconstitutional.

“The First Amendment protects both the right to speak and the right to petition the government. David does both, “said Institute for Justice Attorney James Knight. “He reads government databases to identify people with unclaimed property, he tells them that they have a right to get their property back, and then he files paperwork with the government to claim the property. Even if it wasn’t protected speech, nothing he does should require a private detective license.”

So today, David is joining with the Institute for Justice to vindicate his First Amendment rights and remove a high barrier to property owners recovering their assets in Illinois.

“It doesn’t take a private detective license to see why Illinois might want to raise barriers to submitting property claims,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson, “If David can’t help property owners submit claims, then the state is more likely to wind up keeping the property. But the state shouldn’t be using irrational licensing barriers to keep unclaimed property.”  

Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice (IJ) litigates nationwide to defend property rights, economic liberty, educational choice, and free speech. IJ is also the nation’s leading legal advocate defending the right to speak for a living. In addition to representing a legal nonprofit that helps people fight meritless debt collection actions, IJ has represented a wide array of occupational-speech clients, including a veterinarian who was fined for answering questions about animals that he hadn’t physically examined, and a woman who was prohibited from giving end-of-life guidance because she was not a licensed funeral director.

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 To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may contact Phillip Suderman, IJ’s Communications Project Manager, at [email protected] or (850) 376-4110. More information on the case is available at:

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