Homeowners have highly protected rights with respect to their property. They generally have the right to defend the land against intruders, build upon the property, and use it for any lawful purpose. However, there are a limited number of circumstances under which the government can take a homeowner's property away, such as under the doctrine of "eminent domain." But there are other instances, albeit quite limited, where the government may take someone's property without paying for it.
Forced Sales and Abandoned Property
In some cases, the government may force the property owner to sell a particular property, typically to repay a creditor for an unpaid debt or for the construction of a public asset such a highway. Typically, the government decides that there needs to be a new road or some other public structure in the same place as privately owned real estate. The homeowners would then be forced to sell their land to the government in a power that is known as "eminent domain." However, the government is generally required to pay for land seized through eminent domain.
But sometimes the government can take away private real estate even without paying the homeowner. First, if the property was used in certain types of crimes, the government can seize it. The crime needs to be connected to the property in some fashion, such as the creation or distribution of illegal drugs. Second, most states can seize property if the property appears to be abandoned for a certain amount of time.
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Another instance in which a government can seize property without paying the land owner is when the police believe the property is being used for a criminal purpose. In order to seize property, the police typically must prove to a court "by a preponderance of the evidence" that the property is substantially likely to be connected to criminal activity. "Preponderance of the evidence" is a much more difficult standard to meet than the "probable cause" standard required for an arrest. It means that the police must convince a judge that it is more likely than not that the property is connected to a crime. If the police simply had to meet the probable cause standard, they would have to show that a prudent person could believe that the property was connected to the crime.
If the police do not meet this requirement, but still seize the property, the homeowner can bring a claim against the police, who may have to pay legal fees. If the homeowner can additionally show that the seizure caused undue hardship, the court has the option of simply releasing the property back to its owner.
Can the Government Seize Your Property? It Depends. Get Help From an Attorney
If the idea of the government taking away your property bothers you, you're not alone. And if you understand eminent domain and believe your land is being taken improperly, you will want to look into it further and perhaps get professional help. An eminent domain attorney can take a look at your situation and help you determine your best options going forward.