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What Is Civil Asset Forfeiture?

Civil asset forfeiture can be found in many criminal cases. It happens when authorities seize property–cars, cash, electronics, etc.–that are supposedly connected to a crime.

Luckily, civil asset forfeiture is heavily regulated. The conditions under which property can be seized are strict in order to protect property owners from unfair seizure. 

What Kind of Property Can Be Seized?

Contraband subject to seizure is defined widely. It includes controlled substances and their corresponding paraphernalia, stolen property, and most personal property involved in the violation of the law. This can include practically anything someone can own. 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.

As you might expect, it is unlawful to possess property that has been deemed contraband. There are many ways one can go about possessing said contraband, beginning with simple transportation and ending with concealment and acquisition. For example, it is illegal to possess cocaine regardless of whether you are transporting it to someone else, hiding it, or simply holding onto it. 


When Can Property Be Seized?

In Florida 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.

This is all detailed in the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, which I’ll cover in more detail in a future post. Basically, your property is subject to forfeiture if you are accused of committing a crime, if someone commits a crime with something belonging to you, or if you become a confidential informant for the police.


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.

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