- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

In the United States, your property can be seized, condemned and turned over to another owner if the government finds a good enough reason to do so. In addition, if you are suspected of being involved in the drug market, your house can be confiscated and sold by local authorities before you even have been tried or convicted of a crime.

"No criminal arrest or conviction is necessary to subject property to forfeiture," according to the American Civil Liberties Union's Web site (www.aclu.org). "Indeed, nearly 80 percent of the victims of forfeiture have never been indicted of a crime. All the police have to do is satisfy a requirement of probable cause that the property was used in an illicit activity or was purchased with funds from illicit activity."

The concept of taking your property is not a theory but a hard, cold reality. In the area of law enforcement, many crime-ridden communities have been cleaned up using this particular practice, but many innocent citizens also have been victimized by this mode of law enforcement.

According to an online article titled, "If the Government Wants Your Property," by FindLaw.com, "If you've been convicted of a crime, the federal government can seize any property used in the crime, including your house. The property may then be sold and the proceeds used to further the government's crime-fighting efforts. So if you own a crack house, your arrest and conviction may lead not only to jail time but to permanent loss of the house and your equity in it."

Seizure can take property owned by an investor who has a tenant suspected or convicted of illicit drug activity.

Congress amended these laws several years ago to protect innocent homeowners from aggressive civil forfeitures.

FindLaw.com reported: "The new law prohibits the government from confiscating property unless it can show 'by a preponderance of the evidence' that the property is substantially connected to the crime. This is a much higher standard of proof than 'probable cause.' If a property owner successfully challenges the seizure in court, the government has to pay legal fees. And if the confiscation causes substantial hardship to the owner, the government just may release the property."

If you find yourself in this type of land forfeiture situation, by all means contact a lawyer. Please don't waste your time e-mailing me or any other real estate writers, for that matter. Call a lawyer. Period.

Unfortunately, even people who stay away from crime can have property condemned and forcibly sold to the government if a local jurisdiction decides there's a better use for the house. Such is the case of one elderly woman in Illinois:

"In Des Plaines, Ill., Irene Angell still lives in the house where she was born more than 80 years ago," reports Castle Coalition (www.castlecoalition.com). "The city is currently threatening to condemn her home for a Walgreens drugstore. Ironically, Ms. Angell worked for Walgreens many years ago and met her husband there."

This process of property seizure is called "eminent domain." The Internet is full of sites operated by irate people who have had their homes and property taken through the process of eminent domain. There are also many sites for eminent domain professionals the people who use eminent domain as a means of acquiring property for transportation and commercial development. One such site is www.EminentDomainOnline.com.

LawInfo.com contains a clear explanation of how eminent domain works:

"Eminent domain is the right of the government to take ownership of privately held real estate regardless of the owner's wishes. Land for schools, freeways, parks, public housing, and other social and public interests are obtained in this manner and the structures on the existing land may be condemned and destroyed. Quasipublic organizations, such as utility companies and railroads, are also permitted to obtain land needed for utility lines, pipes and tracks. The property owner must be paid the fair market value of the property taken from him or her."

To be fair, eminent domain is not entered into lightly. Most eminent domain actions are for the greater good of the larger community. If, however, you find yourself and your property subject to eminent domain, contact a lawyer first to find out your rights under the law, then get a good Realtor to help you get the best price on your property.

Several resources are available for homeowners facing this government action:

www.CastleCoalition.com: Home of the Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide.

• www.EminentDomainLaw.net: Includes "Property Owner's Guide to Eminent Domain."

www.RightOfWay.com: Public site for consumers and professionals regardingeminent domain.

• www.OwnersCounsel.com: Official site of Owners Counsel of America, a group of property rights attorneys that specialize in helping homeowners with eminent domain issues.

M. Anthony Carr has written about real estate for more than 13 years. Reach him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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