Justin Pearson: Legislature needs to reform Florida’s civil forfeiture laws

financial transparency

Second of three parts.

Civil forfeiture began as something relatively innocuous. Throughout most of U.S. history, civil forfeiture was primarily used to enforce duties and excise taxes.

But this all changed during the 1980s, as law enforcement agencies around the nation began to realize that they could supplement their resources by pursuing civil forfeiture instead of pursuing criminals.

It was not long before 49 states, including Florida, passed civil forfeiture laws at the behest of law enforcement groups eager to supplement their budgets. The lone exception was North Carolina, and for good reason. The North Carolina Constitution requires all seized funds to be appropriated to public schools, thereby removing the profit incentive from law enforcement agencies there to lobby for the enactment of civil forfeiture laws.

Florida’s civil forfeiture law suffers from many of the same defects once found elsewhere. Although Florida law include some procedural protections that can be used by property owners willing to pay an attorney to litigate the issue, the statutes fail to address the core problem. This problem is the profit incentive, which gives law enforcement a reason to seize as much property and cash as possible and then force the property owner to pay a lawyer to try to get the property back.

Considering that the majority of seizures involve less than $1,000, it is not surprising that most innocent owners accept offers to quickly settle rather than spend years in court. Although this may turn a quick profit for the seizing agency, the harm done to the public’s faith in law enforcement is irreparable.

The financial incentive given to law enforcement to search for money rather than fight crime quickly led to gross improprieties. One well-publicized example took place during the 1990s in Volusia County. The Volusia County Sheriff recognized that drugs entered the county on one side of I-95, with the proceeds returning in the other direction.

Rather than attempt to stop the drugs, which the sheriff obviously could not sell or apply to his budget, he instead focused onintercepting the money going back out. He specifically targeted minorities, and the only evidence required for seizure was the mere fact that drivers had any cash in their possession.

Documentation proving the legitimacy of the money was irrelevant, as discovered by Navy reservist Bobby Jones, who provided pay stubs for his $3,989, but watched in horror as his money was seized anyway. More than 75 percent of Volusia County’s seizures resulted in zero arrests.

Public outrage led to some modest reforms of Florida law over a decade ago. Unfortunately, Florida’s reforms did not address the perverse financial incentives causing the abusive practices. Consequently, Florida continues to generate a steady stream of outrageous stories garnering national scorn.

It is probably no surprise then that Florida’s civil forfeiture laws received a “D+” in the Institute for Justice’s March 2010 “Policing for Profit” report, which assesses the protections of property rights in all 50 states.

Since that time, no reforms have been enacted in Tallahassee. Meaningful reform has been proposed, but the Legislature has consistently failed to pass it. Consequently, every day, and in every corner of the state, innocent Floridians are forced to negotiate for the return of a small percentage of their own wrongfully seized property rather than pursue legal proceedings that would cost more in attorney fees than the property is worth. It is therefore not surprising that Florida’s civil forfeiture laws received a grade of “D+” yet again in the November 2015 “Policing for Profit” report.

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Justin Pearson is the Florida Office Managing Attorney at the Institute for Justice. The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty and provides pro bono representation for innocent victims of civil forfeiture around the nation. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

In Part 3, the author will discuss the reforms enacted in other states, which Florida should implement. To read Part 1, click here.

This article originally appeared in The James Madison Institute’s Winter 2016 Journal and is being reprinted with the permission of The James Madison Institute. Minor modifications have been made to separate the original article into three articles, remove the endnotes, and include updates. The original article is available at: http://www.jamesmadison.org/issues/civil-forfeiture-floridas-embarrassing-failure-to-protect-property-rights.html.

Phil Ammann

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist, editor and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing, reporting and management experience, Phil produced content for both print and online, in addition to founding several specialty websites, including HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range included covering news, local government and entertainment reviews for Patch.com, technical articles, and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine as well as advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as editor and production manager for Extensive Enterprises Media since 2013 and lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul. He can be reached at [email protected]



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