What is Property Forfeiture?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 02 February 2020
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Property forfeiture is a punitive measure that involves the confiscation of property. There are numerous circumstances in which property can be forfeit. Governments can seize property used in the commission of a crime, for example, and property can also be seized when someone fails to perform on a contractual obligation. There are mechanisms in place to dictate how and why property forfeiture can occur, in the interests of protecting property rights.

One of the most common forms of property forfeiture is confiscation of property from convicted criminals. Property forfeiture is a common tactic in enforcing drug and anti-terrorism laws. The government can seize property connected with a crime to punish a convicted criminal and prevent the property from being used for additional crimes. The government either utilizes the property or sells it and uses the funds to pay for law enforcement officers, training, and equipment.

Property forfeiture in this sense is also used as a deterrent. People are reminded that if they engage in illegal activity, property associated with that activity, including cars and houses, can be confiscated by the government. Some police officers even drive forfeited vehicles decorated with signage indicating their origins to remind the community of the consequences of committing crimes.


The government can also engage in civil property forfeiture. In some cases, property is clearly being used illegally, but the property owner has not been convicted. This often happens with major players in the criminal world who are skilled at distancing themselves from criminal activity. In these cases, the government sues the property itself, confiscating the property if the government can prove in court that the property is being used for illegal purposes.

In contract law, property forfeiture can be written into a contract as a consequence for breach of contract. Mortgages are an example of a contract with a forfeiture clause written in. Likewise, people who lease equipment and premises can be penalized with forfeiture if they fail to make good on the terms of the contract. This provides a mechanism for the other party to recover the property and obtain compensation for the contractual breach.

Usually, before property can be forfeited, notice must be served explaining why the property is scheduled for confiscation and when the confiscation will occur. This allows the property owner an opportunity to contest the forfeiture. In cases where people are tried and convicted of crimes, property forfeiture may be a part of the sentence. Law enforcement may be authorized to seize property without warning if there is a legitimate concern that the property could be concealed or moved before it can be confiscated.


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