Legal Dictionary

eminent domain

Legal Definition of eminent domain


    USA Origin


  1. The legal power to expropriate private land for the sake of public necessity.


    USA origin

Definition of eminent domain


eminent domain (uncountable)

  1. (US) The right of a government over the lands within its jurisdiction. Usually invoked to compel land owners to sell their property in preparation for a major construction project such as a freeway.

    The city council used eminent domain to make me sell my store.

Related terms

Further reading

Eminent domain (United States, Canada), compulsory purchase (United Kingdom, New Zealand, Ireland), resumption/compulsory acquisition (Australia) or expropriation (South Africa and Canada's common law systems) is the inherent power of the state to seize a citizen's private property, expropriate property, or seize a citizen's rights in property with due monetary compensation, but without the owner's consent. The property is taken either for government use or by delegation to third parties who will devote it to public or civic use or, in some cases, economic development. The most common uses of property taken by eminent domain are for public utilities, highways, and railroads, however it may also be taken for reasons of public safety, such as in the case of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Some jurisdictions require that the government body offer to purchase the property before resorting to the use of eminent domain. The legal doctrine of eminent domain, like the doctrine of seizure of contraband, allows expropriation of property within the existing system of law. Otherwise, expropriation may imply either a criminal or a revolutionary act.

The term "condemnation" is used to describe the formal act of the exercise of the power of eminent domain to transfer title to the property from its private owner to the government. This use of the word should not be confused with its sense of a declaration that property is uninhabitable due to defects. The latter usually does not deprive the owners of the title to the property condemned but requires them to rectify the offending situation or have the government do it for the owner at the latter's expense.

Condemnation via eminent domain indicates the government is taking ownership of the property or a lesser interest in it, such as an easement. In most cases the only thing that remains to be decided when a condemnation action is filed is the amount of just compensation, although in some cases the right to take may be challenged by the property owner on the grounds that the attempted taking is not for a public use, or has not been authorized by the legislature, or because the condemnor has not followed the proper procedure required by law.

The exercise of eminent domain is not limited to real property. Governments may also condemn personal property, such as supplies for the military in wartime or franchises. Governments can even condemn intangible property such as contract rights, patents, trade secrets, and copyrights. Even football teams may be seized by eminent domain.

Eminent domain violates article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, among other property rights, that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property." The UDHR was created for the specific purpose of defining "fundamental freedoms" and "human rights" as used in the United Nations Charter, which is legally binding on all member states. As a result, the UDHR is also legally binding.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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