What Is Confiscation?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 25 January 2020
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Confiscation is the seizure of private property by the government or its representatives, without providing compensation to the owner, on the grounds that the property is illegal or was used for criminal purposes. Governments can confiscate property on a variety of grounds, and most follow specific legal guidelines to avoid falling afoul of laws designed to protect property rights. If a confiscation is wrongful, the owner may file suit to retrieve the property from the government.

In the case of illegal items, law enforcement, security personnel, and similar authorities can seize items for public safety. Passengers moving through security at airports, courthouses, and similar environments, for example, have the option of not passing through and keeping their belongings, or giving up hazardous items like knives and guns. Security officials post guidelines on prohibited items for the benefit of the public and can confiscate and sell these items from people who pass through security.

The government can also choose to confiscate property gained through criminal activity. Confiscation of money and valuables taken by theft, fraud, and other activities is a measure used by a number of law enforcement agencies in addition to prosecution. The goal is to prevent criminals from profiting on the proceeds of their activities. The government can use the property as it sees fit, usually selling it at auction and using the funds to finance law enforcement activities.


The lack of compensation is a key component of confiscation. There may be other settings where governments can seize or commandeer private property, but they must compensate the owner. In eminent domain, for example, governments may seize real estate for the public good, but they also have to pay the owner an equivalent value so he can replace the seized property. Members of the public who believe they have been wrongfully deprived of their property can contest the confiscation in a court of law.

It is advisable to consult an attorney in the event of confiscation proceedings. A lawyer can review the government's documentation on the matter and provide insight into whether the seizure is justified. If it is not, the attorney can help with filing a complaint to recover the property. It is usually necessary to act fast, as seized property may be sold or destroyed quickly, in the case of illegal items, depending on when and where it is seized. It is often possible to buy the property back, but property owners may be reluctant to do this.


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