Imagine waking up one day to find your car or even your home is no longer yours. Law enforcement, armed with the authority of civil asset forfeiture, has seized it, suspecting connections to criminal activity. 

Even though you are innocent, the burden of proof is on you, it’s near impossible to get your case in front of a judge, and it could be years before you get your property back. 

Now, this may sound like the plot of a dystopian novel, but for countless individuals across the United States, it’s a terrifying reality.

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process that allows law enforcement to seize assets — such as cash, vehicles, or property — that they suspect are involved in illegal activities, even if the owner of the assets has not been charged with a crime. 

Naturally, this practice has long been controversial as it leads to situations where individuals lose their property without being convicted of a crime, and the burden of proof often falls on the property owner to demonstrate that their assets were not involved in criminal activities.

Innocent people becoming ensnared in the trap of civil asset forfeiture is sadly not a rare occurrence. Indeed, there is an abundance of horror stories, yet this glaring form of government overreach shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

Let’s take a look at some of these stories.

1. Gerardo Serrano

In September 2015, Kentucky resident Gerardo Serrano’s quick photo stop near Eagle Pass, Texas took an unexpected and costly turn after an encounter with Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

Serrano was pulled over by CBP agents shortly after snapping the photos near the U.S.-Mexico border, and after refusing to divulge the password to his phone, his truck was subject to a search.

After agents found five loose bullets in Serrano’s brand new Ford F-250 and deemed them “munitions of war.” Although Serrano, who had a license to carry a concealed handgun, was not charged with any crime, his vehicle was seized under civil asset forfeiture.

After spending $3,800 on a federal court challenge, filing a lawsuit for due process violation, and a two-year wait, Serrano eventually had his property returned by CBP. 

However, the Supreme Court recently declined to hear his case, affirming the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ stance that seizing property without a hearing does not breach due process. 

Serrano expressed disbelief at the court’s decision, questioning how an ordinary person can endure years of waiting after the government seizes their property without recourse. The lack of a hearing remains a notable absence in the options presented to individuals facing such seizures.

2. Stephanie Wilson

In 2019, Stephanie Wilson, a nursing student in Detroit, faced the seizure of two cars by police who alleged her ex-boyfriend was involved in drug offenses. Despite Wilson having no connection to any wrongdoing, no arrests, and no discovery of illegal items in her vehicles, the government proceeded to seize her cars. 

Wilson’s attempts to contest the seizures were thwarted three times, facing bureaucratic obstacles such as being told she filed too early, misplaced paperwork, and missed deadlines.

In Detroit, prosecutors propose a deal: property owners can reclaim their possessions by paying a fixed fee to the government. In Wilson’s case, she was asked to buy back her car for $1,800, excluding storage and towing fees—an offer she couldn’t afford and declined at every conference.

After nearly two years, Wilson finally appeared before a judge who ruled in her favor, preventing the government from keeping her vehicles. 

3. Carl Nelson and Amy Sterner Nelson

In May 2020, the lives of Carl Nelson and Amy Sterner Nelson were turned upside down when the FBI seized nearly $1 million from them. The FBI alleged that Carl Nelson was involved in an illegal kickback scheme with developers during his tenure as a real estate transaction manager at Amazon, but he was never charged with a crime.

The aftermath of this seizure led the Nelson family to make significant sacrifices, including selling their car and home, liquidating their retirement savings, and temporarily relocating with their four daughters to a relative’s basement.

In February 2022, the FBI and the Nelsons reached a settlement. Out of the $892,000 the government confiscated, they agreed to return $525,000 to the family. 

However, this resolution came at a cost; Carl and Amy had to forfeit $109,000, and the remainder of the sum was consumed by court fees. 

While recovering $525,000 is certainly better than nothing, the Nelsons had to accept a substantial loss of about $367,000, making it a far cry from a favorable bargain. 

The Nelsons’ story underscores the challenges and financial repercussions faced by individuals entangled in asset forfeiture cases, even when settlements are reached.

4. Even safe deposit boxes aren’t safe

In March 2021, federal agents conducted a raid in Beverly Hills, California, seizing almost 1,400 safe deposit boxes from a vault. 

While tasked with cataloging the box contents, the agents went beyond their mandate, confiscating valuables such as gold coins, luxury watches, family heirlooms, and cash from individuals who were not charged with any crimes. Despite the warrant explicitly stating that the box contents were off-limits, the FBI orchestrated a scheme to seize over $86 million in cash and property. 

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is now tasked with determining whether this brazen action violated the Fourth Amendment rights of the innocent victims.

The case reveals a concerning “dual motive” from the FBI, with evidence indicating premeditated plans to forfeit property, undisclosed in the warrant application. 

A lower court ruled the FBI’s inventory of the seized boxes as legal, emphasizing that the plaintiffs needed to prove the improper investigatory motive was the sole reason for opening the boxes—an argument that, if upheld by the Ninth Circuit, could erode Fourth Amendment privacy protections.

The state has an incentive to maintain civil asset forfeiture

The government has a significant interest in maintaining civil asset forfeiture in its current form. Why? Because it’s extremely lucrative. 

Law enforcement agencies in 25 states channel 95 to 100 percent of seized funds directly to their budgets, while for a further seven states, the number stands between 80 and 95 percent.

The federal government, as in Serrano’s case, directs over 95 percent of forfeiture proceeds to the Department of Justice and Department of the Treasury, contributing to the reluctance to initiate reform. 

Moreover, with extremely relaxed reporting requirements and a lack of public oversight, law enforcement agencies often make creative use of these funds, purchasing items ranging from submachine guns and uniform embroidery to web design services and even a lawn mower, according to a 2017 report from the Philadelphia Weekly.

The same report revealed that, over a five-year period, a local District Attorney’s office in Pennsylvania spent $7 million in seized funds, including tens of thousands of dollars in miscellaneous cash withdrawals.

Collectively, the annual total seized through civil asset forfeiture across the U.S. reaches billions of dollars, with at least $63 billion forfeited between 2002 and 2018, according to the ‘Policing for Profit’ report by the Institute for Justice. However, the true figure is likely significantly higher, since over half of all states did not contribute their data. 

According to the Institute for Justice, 26 states are severely lacking in transparency surrounding money and assets seized through forfeiture, some of which, including Alaska, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, and North Carolina have seemingly no requirement whatsoever to track seized property.

Ultimately, civil asset forfeiture is riddled with corruption and flies in the face of due process — it simply must be ended. There is now an urgent need for greater transparency around law enforcement and for more of these cases to reach judges so that victims of state-sanctioned theft can be reunited with their belongings without having to wait for years.

Injustices like civil asset forfeiture will be at the forefront of the discussion at LibertyCon International, where a panel consisting of former Libertarian Party candidate for vice-president, Spike Cohen, journalist, David Preston, and documentary filmmaker, Topher Field, moderated by Kat Murti, co-founder and executive director of Feminists for Liberty.

Students For Liberty’s flagship annual event, LibertyCon International will be held in Washington, D.C., on February 2-4, 2024. It promises to be the place for engaging with leading experts and connecting with others who share a dedication to advancing pro-liberty ideas and creating a freer future.

Click the button below to sign up for updates and secure your spot at this exciting event. We can’t wait to see you there!

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.