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Can the Government Seize My Property Without Paying Me?

Homeowners have highly protected rights on their real property. They generally have the right to:

  1. Defend the land against intruders,
  2. Build upon the property, and
  3. Use it for any lawful purpose.

There are limited circumstances under which the government can take a homeowner's property away, such as eminent domain. But there are other instances, albeit quite limited, where the government may take someone's property without paying for it. These include:

  • Criminal asset forfeiture action
  • Civil forfeiture proceedings
  • Other forfeiture laws where seized property is connected to an illegal activity

A state may also seize property if it appears abandoned for a certain amount of time through its attorney general's office or other enforcement agency.

Eminent Domain

Sometimes, the government may force the property owner to sell a particular property to construct a public asset, such as a highway. Typically, the government decides that there needs to be a new road or some other public structure in the same place as privately owned real estate. The homeowners would then have to sell their land to the government in a power called "eminent domain." But, the government generally must pay for the market value of the property seized through eminent domain.

Check out the following articles to learn more about eminent domain:

Unpaid Debt and Taxes

The federal government and state and local governments may seize personal property, motor vehicles, and real estate connected to unpaid debt. Examples include:

Forced Sales in Criminal Cases

Under state laws and federal laws for criminal procedure, the government can take away private real estate even without paying the homeowner. If someone uses the property for certain crimes, the government can seize it. The crime must connect to the property in some fashion, such as the creation or distribution of illegal drugs.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has an Asset Forfeiture Program backed by federal law. Other federal agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), have procedures in place for seizing property connected to controlled substances, such as:

  • Drug trafficking
  • Money laundering
  • Importing of illegal substances or similar property

Under these circumstances, a federal district court judge may issue a seizure warrant to allow a seizing agency to take over forfeited property.

Civil Property Seizures

Under civil procedures for asset forfeiture, the government can take property it believes is being used for a criminal purpose. To seize property, police typically must prove to a court "by a preponderance of the evidence" that the property is substantially likely connected to criminal activity. Here, the property gets seized without its owner necessarily getting arrested or convicted of a crime.

"Preponderance of the evidence" is a more difficult standard than the "probable cause" standard required for an arrest. It means that the police must convince a judge that it is more likely than not that the property connects to a crime. If the police simply had to meet the probable cause standard, they would have to show that a prudent person could believe that the property was connected to the crime.

If law enforcement officers do not meet this rule but still seize the property, a homeowner can bring a claim against them. A claimant deprived of a proper forfeiture process, such as a judicial forfeiture proceeding, may be able to get:

  • The forfeited assets from local law enforcement agencies
  • Legal fees and attorney fees from the seizing agency

If the homeowner can also show that the seizure caused undue hardship, the court can release the property back to its owner.

Can the Government Seize Your Property? It Depends. Get Help From an Attorney

If the idea of the government taking away your property bothers you, you're not alone. Asset seizure is an evolving area of the law, and the Supreme Court is constantly hearing new cases that shape its future. If you believe the government is taking your land improperly, get professional help. An eminent domain attorney can look at your situation and help you determine your best options.

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Contact a qualified real estate to help you navigate land use issues including zoning, easements and eminent domain.

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