Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. recently ordered state and local police to stop using federal law to confiscate cash, vehicles and other assets without warrants or the filing of criminal charges against suspects. The move was widely hailed by civil liberties groups that had railed against government seizures of property for more than three decades.
It is not yet known how Holder's change of policy will affect Florida, however. Our state has its own asset forfeiture laws enabling state and local law enforcement agencies to seize property - even from people never convicted of any crime.
Orlando readers of the Washington Post might have read a recent article about Holder's decision and a Post investigation into local and state police use of the forfeiture laws originally put on the books to fight the "war on drugs." The newspaper"found that local and state police routinely pulled over drivers for minor traffic infractions, pressed them to agree to warrantless searches and seized large amounts of cash without evidence of wrongdoing."
The property owners were then forced to prove to authorities that their assets were legally obtained before they could get their cash, cars or other assets returned.
Orlando readers might also recall an Ocala newspaper report from last year that detailed the many asset seizures there by a new county sheriff. It told the tale of a woman arrested in 2013 for oxycodone possession. Her 2008 Chevy Impala was seized during the arrest.
She pleaded not guilty. Months later, prosecutors dropped the criminal charges against her and she could finally get her vehicle back - after paying a $3,500 fee. The woman's attorney noted that even though criminal charges had been dropped, the civil action - the forfeiture - had proceeded against his client.
A retired judge and federal prosecutor said, "It's a question of money. The police need more money, want more money." Forfeiture laws enable Florida law enforcement agencies to keep seized vehicles or auction them off, and also to make various uses of seized cash.
Forfeiture of funds can take place in a variety of contexts, including allegations of money laundering, drug trafficking, and white-collar crimes. An experienced defense attorney can help protect your assets while defending your rights and your liberty in negotiations and at trial.