Stolen Rights: Why Government Seizure of Innocent Americans’ Property Must End


This article is part of a series focusing on Lens of Liberty, a project of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation

In her Liberty Minute titled “Forfeit this Practice,” Helen Krieble discusses one of the most blatant violations of freedom that regularly occurs in the United States: civil asset forfeiture.

Convicted criminals obviously can’t keep ill-gotten wealth, but police often seize property from people who aren’t even charged with a crime, much less convicted. If police merely suspect something was acquired illegally they can take it under a program called civil asset forfeiture. It’s become a regular source of funding for police departments.

In 2014, citizens lost more property to police than to burglars. People who want their property returned must prove in court that they obtained it legally. A look through the lens of liberty shows that is a direct violation of the Bill of Rights, which protects us against illegal searches and seizures. Citizens should insist that Congress stop this unconstitutional program.

Krieble is absolutely correct: in 2014, civil forfeitures deposited by the government totaled over $5 billion, while losses from burglary totaled to be $3.5 billion.

Civil asset forfeiture clearly violates the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which states that people have the right to not be subject to searches of personal property without probable cause. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that the many victims of forfeiture who were never charged with a crime all had their items searched with legitimate probable cause.

Furthermore, this procedure also violates the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which says that no person will be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law or have their property taken for public use without just compensation. As Krieble states, if one has his or her money or belongings seized under civil asset forfeiture, the burden of proof is paradoxically placed not on the police, but on the property owner to show that he or she obtained the seized assets legally.

It is unfortunately not uncommon for a citizen to have his or her assets seized and nevertheless not be charged with a crime, even as the assets continue to be held. Thus, this property is stripped from the owner without due process.

Thankfully, some Americans are finally beginning to fight back against this violation of liberty. The Tennessee Senate, for example, recently passed a bill that would protect victims of civil asset forfeiture. Among the provisions include a mandate to notify the owner of the seizure, subjecting an agency to civil lawsuits if they seize property in bad faith, and a mandate that the seizing agency must pay the attorneys’ fees of owners who have had their property wrongfully seized.

While these measures do not completely address the problems of civil asset forfeiture, they take a big step in the right direction toward protecting individuals who are victims of wrongful seizure. As Krieble states, citizens must demand that this harmful program be stopped to protect the liberty of Americans. After all, the protection of private property is one of the core principles on which this country was founded.

Terry Schilling

Terry Schilling is executive director of the American Principles Project.

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