Police in Florida seized nearly $266 million in cash, homes, vehicles, and other property using forfeiture actions in 2018, more than any other state, according to a new report published by the Institute of Justice.
A majority of the seizures are from civil asset forfeiture, a tool that allows law enforcement to take cash or property they believe was involved in a crime, even if the owner is never charged.
According to the Institute of Justice report, Florida law enforcement agencies collected $246 million through forfeiture actions and almost $20 million through federal equitable sharing programs in 2018, making it a leader in property seizures in the nation. For comparison, larger states like California and Texas collected an estimated $139 million and $90 million, respectively.
Florida’s high rate of property seizures is surprising because lawmakers reformed the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws four years ago with the passage of Senate Bill 1044 (2016). The bill raised the standard of proof, adopted new transparency requirements, increased judicial and administrative oversight, and required an arrest before police can seek the seizure of most property. Police are also required to donate at least 15 percent of seized funds to crime prevention or drug abuse prevention and treatment programs.
Despite the 2016 overhaul, law enforcement can still make a seizure without an arrest if they can prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the property is connected to a crime. Agencies can also circumvent state forfeiture law by participating in the U.S. Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program, which allows police departments to keep up to 80 percent of seized funds if they give the federal government 20 percent.
“As long as civil forfeiture laws are on the books, nobody’s property rights are protected,” said Jennifer McDonald, a senior research analyst for the Institute of Justice and one of the report’s authors. “We have clients from all walks of life who have done nothing wrong but to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up having their property seized.” The Institute of Justice estimates Florida has collected at least $1 billion in state and federal forfeiture revenue between 2000 and 2019, earning the state a ‘C’ grade for its civil forfeiture laws.
Supporters of civil asset forfeiture argue that ending the practice could cause a rise in crime by taking funds away from law enforcement. But an Institute of Justice analysis of FBI data found that New Mexico, which abolished the practice in 2015, did not experience such repercussions.
Challenging a forfeiture action is a costly and lengthy process that requires owners to take affirmative steps to even be eligible. It can sometimes take years before property owners win back seized cash or property. In almost every case, hiring an experienced civil asset forfeiture defense attorney is your best bet to get your property back quickly.
South Florida Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
Has you lawful property been seized using civil asset forfeiture? Contact Brian Silber, P.A. to set up a free initial consultation with one of South Florida’s most experienced civil asset forfeiture defense attorneys.