Property Law: When Can The Government Seize Your Property?

A house with tan paint at the end of a driveway in a seizure of property legal case

    In Brief:

  • The government can seize property under several circumstances in the United States. 

  • These primary reasons include eminent domain, judicial lien, tax seizure and civil forfeiture. 

  • Learn more about the seizure of property below in our in-depth guide.

Property law, put in place by the government, has been used to ensure the smooth transfer of property between parties, protect property rights for individuals and businesses, and establish legal ways to shift property rights from one party to another in the event of someone’s death or incapacitation. 

The government itself also has the right to seize private property for a number of reasons under specific circumstances. Some of these reasons have to do with the actions of the individual, while others focus on the greater public good at the expense of private property ownership. But just what exactly are these reasons? Here’s a closer look at when the seizure of property by the government can occur in the United States.

When Can the Government Seize Private Property?

In some cases, the Federal government, as well as local and state governments, have the authority to seize and take control of private property for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons include:

Eminent Domain

Governments can seize private property through eminent domain laws. Eminent domain refers to the power of Federal, state, and local governments to seize private property for public use in exchange for compensation to the property owner. Common uses of eminent domain in the United States include constructing government buildings, public utilities, highways, railroads, and economic development projects.

Judicial Lien

In some instances, governments can take control of the title to a property under a lien. This is something that occurs fairly frequently in foreclosure cases that result in the judicial sale of someone’s property. 

Tax Seizure

If a property owner fails to pay their taxes consistently, the government may take control of its title and seize it from the owner. As with judicial liens, the seized property is often sold at an auction. 

Civil Forfeiture

The seizure of property by a government can also occur if the property is in a crime. Since the property itself, as opposed to the property owner, is subject to a lawsuit in this instance, the owner isn’t entitled to compensation or due process.