The Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act describes the conditions under which property can and cannot be seized by, then officially forfeited to, law enforcement agencies in the state of Florida. The law states that its purpose is “to deter and prevent the continued use of contraband articles for criminal purposes while protecting the…interests of innocent owners.” (Title XLVII, 932.704)
The Act defines contraband widely, from controlled substances and their corresponding paraphernalia, to stolen property, to most personal property involved in the violation of Florida law. Even digital property, such as recorded video, can be seized and subsequently forfeited. Domestic or international currency, including checks and money orders, may also be seized as contraband.
The Act then categorically describes that is unlawful to possess property that has been deemed contraband. It also details the many ways one can go about possessing said contraband, beginning with simple transportation and ending with concealment and acquisition.
When Can Property Be Seized?
Once property is determined to be contraband, it can only be seized if “the owner of the property is arrested for a criminal offense” related to the property. There are exceptions, however, and property can be seized under other circumstances:
- If the owner cannot be identified after what the law calls a “diligent search” by the seizing agency or if the owner is dead or fugitive from justice;
- If somebody commits a crime on or with the property of another, and the owner knows that it occurred;
- If the owner of the property agrees to be a confidential informant. However, if criminal charges are not filed against the owner, the property must be returned unless criminal charges are filed.
What Happens Afterwards?
Once property has been seized, the involved party will move to forfeiture. This begins with a civil forfeiture case that is heard before a circuit court judge, with a decision by a jury, unless that right is waived.
If it is proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the contraband article was being used in violation of the Act, it is deemed forfeited by the court. If the owner of the property successfully refutes the seizure, however (and the seizing agency chooses not to appeal the decision), the property is released immediately. Once this occurs, the property owner is not required to pay any towing charges, storage fees, administrative, or maintenance costs. If the court finds that the property was seized without any probable cause, it can award the property owner up to $2,000 to cover legal fees.
Once the property is forfeited, law enforcement agencies can use money collected for supplemental funding. The law acknowledges a potential conflict of interest in an agency’s ability to sell forfeited property for funding, and while it does not outline specific restrictions, it states that the acquisition of additional funding from forfeited property shall not override public safety, the safety of law enforcement, or the investigation’s procedure. The law then goes on to remind us of the Constitutional right to not undergo unreasonable search and seizure.