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Florida Appeals Court Makes it Easier to Get Back Property Seized by Police

The case of Daniel v. State, 991 So. 2d 421 (Fla. 5th DCA 2008) involved drug charges stemming from a search of an automobile and seizure of drugs and $586.00 in cash.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress, which was granted, and the court in the criminal case ordered the return of the $586.00 in cash. A nolle prosequi was filed and the case was dismissed.

The defendant then went to the police to request return of the $586.00. The police refused to return the money, claiming that the defendant had entered into a contract whereby he forfeited any claim to the $586.00, in exchange for the police agreeing that there would be no forfeiture proceeding against his vehicle. The police claimed they could have moved to forfeit the vehicle on the grounds that it had been used to transport illegal drugs.

The defendant went back to court and complained that the order to return property had not been complied with. The state advised the court about the agreement not to forfeit the vehicle, and the trial court declined to consider the matter, saying that it was a contract dispute and the defendant should sue in civil court.

The defendant contended that the agreement to give up any claim to the $586.00 was a contract that was obtained by police coercion.

The District Court of Appeals noted that the trial court in the criminal case has inherent authority over property seized or obtained in connection with the criminal case.Stevens v. State, 929 So. 2d 1197, 1198 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006), and Eight Hundred, Inc. v. State, 781 So. 2d 1187, 1191-92 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001). Property is held in custodia legis when the property is obtained by law enforcement for the use as evidence in a criminal proceeding. The criminal court's authority over that property continues beyond the termination of the prosecution and thus enables the criminal court to direct the return of the property to its rightful owner. Accordingly, a trial court that has jurisdiction over the criminal proceedings has priority jurisdiction over other courts to determine whether property seized for use in the criminal procedures is to be retained or returned to the owner. Eight Hundred, Inc., 781 So. 2d at 1190-91.

The appellate court reversed the trial court's ruling and remanded with instructions that the trial court hold a hearing to determine whether the contract, which was relied upon by the police, was void because it was obtained through coercion.

The ability of a successful defendant to expeditiously seek review before the court that had the criminal case in an effort to obtain return of property is not only a fair result, but one which will save not only the judicial time and resources of the civil courts, but also the expense and delay involved in filing a civil case.

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