May 17, 2021
By Stephen Silverman
Matthew Fabay is a Phoenix resident, an active member of his church and his community. But he also nearly lost his car to the government, even though he hadn’t done a thing wrong. Now, the Goldwater Institute has gotten his car back in its latest civil asset forfeiture victory, coming on the heels of its success in reforming Arizona’s unjust forfeiture law.
On February 17, 2021, Phoenix resident Matthew Fabay lent his GMC Yukon SUV to his sister’s fiancé to run a couple of errands. When he didn’t return after a couple of hours, Matthew became concerned. He soon learned that his relative had been arrested by federal law enforcement. Even though Matthew had done nothing wrong himself, the government seized his SUV and started proceedings to forfeit it under the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow government to take and hold your property indefinitely, even if you haven’t been accused of a crime.
Matthew is not alone. Every day, innocent property owners find themselves embroiled in a civil asset forfeiture scheme that sees the government confiscate millions of dollars’ worth of property each year, even from innocent property owners who themselves did nothing wrong.
Unsure of what to do, and unable to understand the paperwork sent to him by the government, Matthew reached out to Goldwater just days before his deadline to respond to the forfeiture notice. “I had no idea how to respond. I thought I would have to pay a ransom to get my truck back,” he said. “I could not understand the paperwork, or the process I would have to follow to get my truck back.” Mathew is not alone in this either. Last year, the Inspector General for the United States Homeland Security sharply rebuked how the government handled most federal forfeiture cases pursued by the Department of Homeland Security. The Inspector General found “inconsistencies in the forms used to notify property owners and the process for responding to claims.”
“The Inspector General significantly understates the problem,” said Goldwater Senior Attorney Stephen Silverman. “The paperwork the government sends out is so confusing, that if a business acted in this manner toward its customers, it would be sued for consumer fraud.” Although the government outlines four options, there really is only one valid option. “If you want to get your property back, you should never submit a petition for remission. The only valid option is to submit a claim, which takes the case out of administrative forfeiture, a process that gives property owners almost no rights or recourse,” Silverman said. (The other two options are to abandon the property or offer to offer the government money to get it back.) “Innocent Americans like Matthew shouldn’t have to face a situation like this.”
Goldwater sent the government Matthew’s claim for his truck, explaining that forfeiture would not be appropriate in this case because Matthew is an innocent owner. “If we had filed a petition, the government could have dragged their feet, and there is little recourse to challenge the decision,” Silverman said. Fortunately for Matthew, the government agreed to return his truck. “Without Goldwater, I don’t think I would ever have gotten my truck back,” Matthew said.
The Goldwater Institute is working to put a stop to asset forfeiture throughout America, so innocent Americans don’t have to fear losing their property to these laws. Just last week, Governor Doug Ducey signed Goldwater’s sweeping reform of Arizona’s civil asset forfeiture laws, setting an example for other states to follow. You can learn more about Goldwater’s efforts to reform civil asset forfeiture here.
Stephen Silverman is a Senior Attorney at the Goldwater Institute.