Every year, federal and state law enforcement agents seize millions of dollars from civilians during traffic stops, simply by asserting that they believe the money is connected to some illegal activity and without ever pursuing criminal charges. Under federal law and the laws of most states, they are entitled to keep most (and sometimes all) of the money and property they seize.
At today’s joint Pinellas Board of County Commissioners/Pinellas Legislative Delegation, State Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) announced that he is considering filing legislation addressing civil asset forfeiture and the abuse of the legal process. He said that his primary focus will be to redirect funds and assets so that individual police departments don’t have a perverse incentive to confiscate more funds and property that they ultimately keep for their own use under current law.
“We’re looking into it. We’re working with the Sheriff’s Association and looking for their thoughts on this issue, ” Brandes told SaintPetersBlog, who emphasized that he’s not yet certain he’ll be filing any legislation on the issue.
Incidents of local law enforcement abusing civil forfeiture laws have been numerous over the past decade, and more some libertarian and conservative groups have been aligning with the ACLU recently to try to address the problem. Senator Brandes referenced an example in Sunrise, Florida, where between 2011 and 2012, Sunrise police made over $5.8 million in forfeiture proceeds, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He said similar stories nationally and not just in Florida, caused him to want to look closer at the matter.
“You have perverse incentives going on,” Brandes says, “so what we want to do is take a deep dive and look at the issue, and see if there are these incentives that we think can be modified, and make sure that when we take people’s assets, that we seize them civilly, and that they are 1) clearly violating the law, and 2) there’s some proportionality to the assets that are being seized and law which they’re violating and that the funds are going towards activities which are disconnected from the activities of law enforcement.”