It’s not an issue that gets much attention, but the government has the right to seize your house,
business, and/or land, forcing you into the street. This mighty power, called "eminent domain," is
enshrined in the US Constitution's Fifth Amendment: "...nor shall private property be taken for
public use without just compensation." Every single state constitution also stipulates that a
person whose property is taken must be justly compensated and that the property must be put to
public use. This should mean that if your house is smack-dab in the middle of a proposed
highway, the government can take it, pay you market value, and build the highway.
Whether or not this is a power the government should have is very
much open to question, but what makes it worse is the abuse of this
supposedly limited power. Across the country, local governments
are stealing their citizens' property, then turning around and selling
it to corporations for the construction of malls, condominiums,
parking lots, racetracks, office complexes, factories, etc.
The Institute for Justice — the country's only nonprofit, public-interest law firm with a
libertarian philosophy — spends a good deal of time protecting individuals and small businesses
from greedy corporations and their partners in crime: bureaucrats armed with eminent domain. In
2003, it released a report on the use of "governmental condemnation" (another name for eminent
domain) for private gain. No central data collection for this trend exists, and only one state
(Connecticut) keeps statistics on it. Using court records, media accounts, and information from
involved parties, the Institute I found over 10,000 such abuses in 41 states from 1998 through
2002. Of these, the legal I process had been initiated against 3,722 properties, and condemnation
had been threatened against 6,560 properties. (Remember, this is condemnation solely for the
benefit of private parties, not for so-called legitimate reasons of "public use.")
In one instance, the city of Hurst, Texas, condemned 127 homes so that a mall could expand.
Most of the families moved under the pressure, but ten chose to stay and fight. The Institute
A Texas trial judge refused to stay the condemnations while the suit was on-going, so the
residents lost their homes. Leonard Prohs had to move while his wife was in the hospital
with brain cancer. She died only five days after their house was demolished. Phyllis Duval's
husband also was in the hospital with cancer at the time they were required to move. He
died one month after the demolition. Of the ten couples, three spouses died and four others
suffered heart attacks during the dispute and litigation. In court, the owners presented
evidence that the land surveyor who designed the roads for the mall had been told to
change the path of one road to run through eight of the houses of the owners challenging
In another case, wanting to "redevelop" Main Street, the city of East Hartford, Connecticut, used
eminent domain to threaten a bakery/deli that had been in that spot for 93 years, owned and
operated by the same family during that whole time. Thus coerced, the family sold the business
for $1.75 million, and the local landmark was destroyed. But the redevelopment fell through, so
the lot now stands empty and the city is in debt.
The city of Cypress, California, wanted Costco to build a retail store on an 18-acre plot of land.
Trouble was, the Cottonwood Christian Center already owned the land fair and square, and was
planning to build a church on it. The city council used eminent domain to seize the land, saying
that the new church would be a "public nuisance" and would "blight" the area (which is right
beside a horse-racing track). The Christian Center got a federal injunction to stop the
condem-nation, and the city appealed this decision. To avoid further protracted legal nightmares,
the church group consented to trade its land for another tract in the vicinity.
But all of this is small potatoes compared to what's going on in Riviera Beach, Florida:
City Council members voted unanimously to approve a $1.25 billion redevelopment plan
with the authority to use eminent domain to condemn at least 1,700 houses and apartments
and dislocate 5,100 people. The city will then take the property and sell the land to
commercial yachting, shipping, and tourism companies.
If approved by the state, it will be one of the biggest eminent domain seizures in US history.
In 1795, the Supreme Court referred to eminent domain as "the despotic power." Over two
centuries later, they continue to be proven right.