Florida legislature passes civil asset forfeiture reforms

Both the Florida House and Senate voted unanimously for legislation that would implement several reforms in Florida’s civil asset forfeiture statutes.

According to the Institute for Justice, “If police suspect that you’ve committed a crime, they can arrest you and put you on trial. At that trial, prosecutors must prove you’re guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But if police suspect your car was involved in a crime, they can take it, sell it, and in most places pocket the proceeds to pad their budgets. They need not prove you committed a crime or even arrest you to take your property away…With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent to get it back…Meanwhile citizens are seeing cash, cars and other property taken away for the flimsiest of reasons. Carrying ‘too much’ cash? Police can accuse you of selling drugs or laundering money, and size it with no conviction or even arrest required…People shouldn’t have their property taken away without being convicted of a crime, and law enforcement shouldn’t be policing for profit.”

The legislation (CS/CS/SB 1044) would require the seizing agency to apply for a court order making a probable cause determination after the agency seizes property, and do so within a certain timeframe. It increases the evidentiary standard from “clear and convincing evidence” to “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that the property is connected with criminal activity. This standard would have to be met for a court to order the forfeiture of the seized property. The bill also requires that the owner of the property was actually arrested for a criminal offense, with some exceptions. In an effort to increase transparency, the bill also adds a requirement for law enforcement agencies to report seized properties. In addition, it states that the employment, salary, promotion, or other compensation of any law enforcement officer may not be dependent on the ability of the officer to meet a quota for seizures.

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Senator Jeff Brandes, the author and prime sponsor of the bill stated “This legislation proposes a very simple concept: if the government is going to seize your property they must charge you with a crime – and if the government wants to keep your property they must convict you…property rights are a bedrock principle of our republic. A heavy burden should always be on the government when seizing property from a Floridian.”

After passing the House and Senate, Brandes stated, “This bill sends a powerful message to Floridians: the government cannot seize your property without making an arrest. These sweeping reforms to civil forfeiture institute major consumer protections and prevent abuses against the property rights of Floridians. I hope the Governor will join both houses of the Florida legislature and support these critical reforms by signing this bill into law.”

Representative Matt Caldwell, who  sponsored the House Bill (HB 883), stated “Momentum is growing behind this proposal and the support illustrates how important this initiative is for our citizens…Floridians deserve to be protected by the highest legal standard when the government attempts to seize their property or assets. At its core, this legislation is fundamentally about property rights and protecting citizens from abuses by their government.”

The House Bill was co-sponsored by Representative Matt Gaetz, and Representatives Eagle, Edwards, Mayfield, Pafford, and Perry.

The bill was supported by a diverse group, including Americans for Tax Reform, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the James Madison Institute, and the Institute for Justice.

Sal Nuzzo, Vice President of Policy at The James Madison Institute (JMI), said “The fundamentals of property rights and due process are among the bedrock of our society — critical enough to be preserved in our Constitution. When those rights are infringed upon, we will fight to protect them…JMI is pleased to join leaders like Senator Brandes and Representative Caldwell in the effort to safeguard all Floridians from having their property seized without due process.”

Justin Pearson, managing attorney of the Institute for Justice’s Florida office, stated “Nobody should lose their property without being convicted of a crime…Florida’s civil forfeiture law has caused the Sunshine State to fall behind the national trend to improve property rights. This bill is an important step towards fixing this abusive system to strengthen the protection of property rights.”

Michelle Richardson, Florida Public Policy Director of the ACLU, stated “Florida law allows law enforcement to seize your belongings even if you haven’t been convicted of a crime.  It’s fundamentally un-American to let the government deprive a person of his belongings if the offense is so minor or the case so tenuous that it doesn’t result in a conviction. The bills discussed today will make sure this no longer happens in Florida.”

The Florida Sheriff’s Association also supported the measures, stating, “The Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act is an important tool for law enforcement in preventing crime and protecting Florida’s communities.  Current HB 889/SB 1044 strikes an important balance addressing the needs of law enforcement to prevent criminals from profiting from their illegal acts while strengthening the property rights of citizens.  The Florida Sheriffs Association wants to thank Senators Jeff Brandes and Aaron Bean and Representatives Larry Metz and Matt Caldwell for their hard work in bringing together all stakeholders, and finding a long-term compromise that all sides could support.  We support SB 1044 passed by the Senate and House and we encourage Governor Scott to sign this legislation into law.”

U.S. Constitution, Amendment IV: Searches and Seizures – “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Florida Constitution – Article 1, Section 12: “Searches and seizures.—The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and against the unreasonable interception of private communications by any means, shall not be violated. No warrant shall be issued except upon probable cause, supported by affidavit, particularly describing the place or places to be searched, the person or persons, thing or things to be seized, the communication to be intercepted, and the nature of evidence to be obtained. This right shall be construed in conformity with the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court. Articles or information obtained in violation of this right shall not be admissible in evidence if such articles or information would be inadmissible under decisions of the United States Supreme Court construing the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution. History.—Am. H.J.R. 31-H, 1982; adopted 1982.”

U.S. Constitution, Amendment V “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

CS/CS/SB 1044: Contraband Forfeiture

GENERAL BILL by Fiscal Policy ; Criminal Justice ; Brandes ; (CO-INTRODUCERS) Negron ; Clemens ; Bean ; Evers

Contraband Forfeiture; Requiring the seizing agency to apply for an order, within a certain timeframe, making a probable cause determination after the agency seizes property; increasing the evidentiary standard from clear and convincing evidence to proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a contraband article was being used in violation of the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act for a court to order the forfeiture of the seized property, etc.

Effective Date: 7/1/2016 Last Action: 3/8/2016 Senate – Ordered enrolled -SJ 838 Location: Final Passage Bill Text: Web Page | PDF

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