Justin Pearson: Legislature should pass important reforms to civil forfeiture laws

financial transparency

Last of three parts.

Unlike Florida’s stagnant civil forfeiture laws, other states have worked to address the problem.

New Mexico, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, and Washington, D.C. have joined North Carolina by either banning civil forfeiture or requiring a criminal conviction as a prerequisite for all forfeitures. This is in addition to other states, like California, where civil forfeiture is banned for certain types of property.

Many more, including Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota, and Vermont, have laws removing the perverse profit incentive for law enforcement by ordering that civil forfeiture proceeds be deposited into a general fund instead of used by the seizing agency. Others still, like Georgia and Utah, have passed reporting requirements with an eye toward further reform in the future. Any of these approaches would be an improvement for Florida.

Florida would be well served to abolish civil forfeiture altogether and replace it with criminal forfeiture (which already exists in Florida) like the reform signed into law in April by Gov. Susana Martinez, R-New Mexico. Although this does not appear likely, there is some good news.

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The 2016 legislative session has provided new opportunities for meaningful reform, with two potential improvements working their way through the House and Senate. The first would only allow seizures if someone is actually arrested, and it would also require the property to be returned to the owner if there is no conviction. The second creates increased transparency through reporting requirements.

The first reform directly addresses the problem by returning law enforcement’s focus to fighting crime instead of chasing innocent Floridians’ money. This important protection is found in Senate Bill 1044, sponsored by Sens. Jeff Brandes, Joe Negron, and Jeff Clemmons, and House Bill 889, sponsored by Reps. Larry Metz and Matt Caldwell.

The second reform’s creation of reporting requirements is also sorely needed. Most states have substantial reporting requirements for all civil forfeitures. Florida has none. Indeed, when the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) researched this issue at the request of the Legislature, it encountered the issue firsthand. It found that only about half of the law enforcement agencies contacted by OPPAGA even bothered to respond.

The transparency requirement is found in Senate Bill 220, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, and in Metz’s and Caldwell’s House Bill 889 mentioned above. It should be noted that these bills also include some helpful procedural improvements.

All of the bills have cleared their first committee stops, and the Senate Bill 1044 is on the agenda for Thursday’s Criminal and Civil Justice Subcommittee meeting, which is also where Senate Bill 220 is pending. On the House side, the bills are pending before Appropriations.

The Legislature should pass these good bills. Otherwise, Florida’s platitudes to property rights will continue to ring hollow.

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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.

Read part one here. Read part two 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 Tampa Bay-area journalist, editor and writer. 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 includes covering news, local government, entertainment reviews, marketing and an advice column. Phil has served as editor and production manager for Extensive Enterprises Media since 2013 and lives in Tampa with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul. He can be reached at [email protected]



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