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Has Florida finally taken decisive action against civil forfeiture?

Last week, our blog discussed the much maligned and widely employed law enforcement practice of civil forfeiture, which essentially provides local and state law enforcement officials in the majority of states with the authority to confiscate property that they believe is connected to a crime -- regardless of whether the person to whom it belongs was convicted, charged or even arrested.

We also discussed how several states are now taking steps to eradicate the practice altogether -- most recently Nebraska -- or, at least, restrict it to some degree. In fact, most people might not realize that Florida actually took just such an action last month.

What exactly has Florida done to curtail civil forfeiture?

On April 1, Governor Rick Scott signed legislation into law dictating that civil forfeiture will be subject to the following restrictions starting July 1, 2016:

  • The seizure of any property by law enforcement agencies -- jewelry, real estate vehicles, etc. -- will have to be preceded by an actual arrest.
  • The law enforcement agency seizing any property will have to pay a $1,000 filing fee and post a $1,500 bond to be paid to the property owner in the event they're found innocent.

This appears to cover both real property and personal property, but what about cash?

While the new law does provide that the seizure of cash will not have to be preceded by an actual arrest, the funds won't actually be forfeited unless the law enforcement agency that took them is able to demonstrate "beyond a reasonable doubt" that it's connected to criminal activity in a court of law.

This is the same lofty standard of proof required for a criminal conviction.

Does the new law call for anything else noteworthy?

The law, which was passed with bipartisan support, also demands the following of local and state law enforcement agencies:

  • Contribution of at least 25 percent of seized proceeds to crime prevention, treatment or education programs if more than $15,000 is secured in a given year via civil forfeiture
  • Regular submission of detailed reports on civil forfeiture so that the state is better able to track how often the practice is occurring and how the funds derived from it are being used

How prevalent is civil forfeiture in Florida?

Florida's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability determined that local law enforcement seized upwards of $68 million in assets over the last five fiscal years, but that this number could be much higher in light of incomplete reporting.

While it's certainly good news that our state has taken measures to limit civil forfeiture, this doesn't mean that mistakes haven't already been made or won't be made going forward. As such, if you believe that your property was unjustly seized by local or state law enforcement officials, please consider contacting the Law Offices of Horwitz & Citro, P.A. to learn more about your options.

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