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The Right to Property Ownership

The Right to Property Ownership

Many United States citizens believe, mistakenly, that they are entitled to an inalienable right to property ownership. Not only is this an inaccurate belief, there are some circumstances under which the government regularly seizes private property without the owners' consent.
WealthHow Staff
Last Updated: Dec 09, 2017
The Pursuit of Property?

In the United States, many people hold the mistaken idea that property is a fundamental right granted by the Constitution. The phrase "life, liberty, and property," which does appear in the Declaration of Colonial Rights of 1774, is often misattributed to the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the Declaration of Independence does not mention property as an inalienable human right. The rights mentioned in the 1776 declaration are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Although neither document bears any legal relevance today, the fact that the Declaration of Independence is so frequently misquoted speaks to the widespread belief that property ownership is a right granted to all citizens of the United States.

What is Eminent Domain?

It is true that, in the United States, there are many laws governing property, and many of them are designed to protect the property of individual citizens. Far from being inalienable, however, property is a right that can and is frequently revoked by the government for one reason or another. One way in which the government can seize private property is called eminent domain in the United States. Other countries refer to similar practices by different names, including expropriation or compulsory purchase. In essence, eminent domain is a power granted to the state that allows the state to take property from private citizens. In the United States, such seizure must be accompanied by some monetary compensation, but the citizens' consent is not necessary. Most usually, eminent domain is used to make room for infrastructure such as roads and highways, but occasionally the government can grant the power of eminent domain to other parties, such as corporations, for purposes of economic development.

Asset Forfeiture

Eminent domain, while it is the most well-known of the ways in which the government can take private property, is far from the only method of revoking property rights. Another circumstance under which citizens do not have the right to property is called asset forfeiture. This procedure, while fairly common in the United States and a few other countries, has not gained widespread popularity worldwide. In short, property forfeiture occurs when an item of property, such as a house, car, or other asset, is suspected to have been used in a crime or act of terrorism. In addition, property that was gained through crime, such as a car given in exchange for illicit drugs, can also be seized through asset forfeiture.

Civil Asset Forfeiture

Civil asset forfeiture, as opposed to criminal asset forfeiture, is the most common type of legal status for asset forfeiture legal cases. Civil asset forfeiture is interesting because the government brings a lawsuit against the property in question, rather than against its owner. In order to fight the lawsuit, the owner must provide good evidence that the property was not involved in or acquired through criminal actions, but if the owner cannot do so, the property is seized and no punishment is received by the property's owner. This can be beneficial in cases where the legal owner of the property was not aware that it was ill-gotten or that it was used in a crime, but when the property has been seized the owner has no further recourse. Additionally, such cases can be very expensive for property owners.

Taking Money From Stopped Cars

Asset forfeiture, while sensible in certain cases, is controversial for a number of reasons. First, one type of asset forfeiture involves seizing assets, usually money, from drivers while the drivers are stopped on the roadside. Most typically, law enforcement officers pull over cars and discover large amounts of cash hidden somewhere within the car. Even without further evidence, officers may assume that the money is drug money because it is concealed, and may seize the property while remaining within the boundaries of the law. This is controversial due, first, to the lack of evidence that may accompany such instances, and, second, to the fact that such assets are often not well traced after they are seized, so corrupt law officers may use the money for personal gain.

Can the Government Seize Your Property?

Although asset forfeiture and eminent domain are two relatively rare and extreme cases of the United States government seizing the property of private citizens, these examples clearly show that the federal government does not take property to be an inalienable human right. The government can seize your property legally, so take care not to engage in any illegal or suspicious activity to ensure that the money and assets you have worked for remain in your own hands.