Civil forfeiture poses one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today. Through civil forfeiture procedures at federal, state, and local levels, property owners can permanently lose their cash, cars, businesses, or even homes—without ever being convicted of, or even charged with, a crime. Americans threatened with civil forfeiture face an appalling lack of due process that treats property owners worse than criminals.
Proponents of forfeiture programs justify this by arguing that the loss of property is less significant than the loss of personal freedom (e.g. arrest or imprisonment). They also assert groundlessly that forfeiture victims give up on their property because they are guilty. Forfeiture’s real-world impact on people and communities remains poorly understood, and anecdotes of abuse are dismissed as outliers. The lack of concrete data refuting such claims is a barrier to reform.
Consider Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine, which IJ dismantled in 2018. Before we secured a sweeping settlement agreement in our class action, the city’s unchecked use of civil forfeiture generated on average a $5.3 million annual stream of revenue for law enforcement agencies. We hypothesize that victims of this system were rarely charged with a crime when their property was seized. We also hypothesize that the system was often too complicated for claimants to successfully navigate it, causing them to abandon their property.
We will survey this potential class of approximately 30,000 members to determine: 1) the demographic profile of people caught up in Philadelphia’s forfeiture scheme, 2) the typical experience of a forfeiture victim in Philadelphia, and 3) the factors that made it difficult to secure the return of their property. By highlighting the real experiences of forfeiture victims, we will engender widespread support, nullify forfeiture proponents’ false assertions, and put an end to this abusive practice in more places than ever before.