Through Civil Asset Forfeiture, the police can seize any property they think was involved in a crime, and use that property for pretty much any purpose they wish, including parties etc.

Suppose burglary, theft, and related unauthorized takings are illegal in a US state, with the exception of when the government does it through civil asset forfeiture.

Suppose Alice broke into Bob's house and stole items (e.g. cash, jewelry, electronics, etc.) which the police later obtain from Alice via civil asset forfeiture, where the crime the property was accused of being involved in was the burglary at Bob's house (assuming they were forced into giving a specific justification at all). Do the police have any obligation to return that to Bob, or can they use it for whatever other purpose they wish?

Does this align incentives such that the police are financial beneficiaries of the taking, and thus have an incentive to contribute to conditions that make it more likely, or even facilitate it, so long as they believe they'll likely be able to get the property after it's been taken from the original owner?

1 Answer 1


It depends on the jurisdiction (naturally). The answer for Washington is "No, not exactly". RCW 9a.83.030 states that "The attorney general or county prosecuting attorney may file a civil action for the forfeiture of proceeds". The police can seize real property, but must file a lis pendens regarding the property. The bar that has to be cleared for forfeiture is "probable cause". The Institute for Justice has an extensive analysis of civil forfeiture, especially with a state by state summary (they aren't positionally neutral on forfeiture, but they are legally respectable).

Then after a inevitable judgment (90 days if the judgment is sooner), the property is transferred. Notice is to be "served within fifteen days after the seizure on the owner of the property seized and the person in charge thereof and any person who has a known right or interest therein, including a community property interest", so they would notify Bob (assuming they know Bob is the real owner). Or, if Bob learns of the seizure that "If a person notifies the seizing law enforcement agency in writing of the person's claim of ownership or right to possession of property within forty-five days of the seizure in the case of personal property and ninety days in the case of real property, the person or persons shall be afforded a reasonable opportunity to be heard as to the claim or right". It is possible that Bob's property could be taken (nothing prevents it), especially if Bob's hands are unclean.

  • So if there's probable cause that the house was involved in a burglary (because, say, Bob reported that a burglary occurred there), the police can take the house as well as whatever was originally stolen?
    – WBT
    Jun 30, 2017 at 12:56
  • You really can't ask questions about what they can't do with forfeiture, just "haven't yet". Intuitively they can't, but they can take a house where thieves planned their deeds.
    – user6726
    Jun 30, 2017 at 14:49
  • Well, I know of one case where they actually did that, but instead of going through the courts with formal civil forfeiture they just severely threatened the owner (in a place where there are no practical checks/controls on police power) and that took care of it without having all the expensive overhead of court filings or appearances.
    – WBT
    Jun 30, 2017 at 15:44
  • 3
    If you're talking about a place where corruption is embedded in the system, asking about what police can or cannot do, is pointless on the face of it.
    – user4657
    Jun 30, 2017 at 22:10
  • 1
    I would guess that if Bob has made an insurance claim in the interim, this would complicate matters, as presumably the claim of ownership would have passed to the insurance company.
    – TripeHound
    Jan 17, 2018 at 9:54

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