A U.S. Supreme Court ruling announced on February 19 has law enforcement agencies in Florida questioning whether they need to change how they seize people’s cash, cars, and homes using a practice known as civil asset forfeiture.
Civil asset forfeiture is a nationwide practice that allows authorities to seize property—vehicles, cash, houses, electronics, and the like—that are suspected of being connected to a crime. The Supreme Court’s ruling struck at the heart of the practice, which is derisively known as “policing for profit,” because police often use it to seize assets even if the owner isn’t charged with a crime.
The decision centered on the 2013 case of Tyson Timbs of Indiana, whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized by police after he was caught dealing a small amount of heroin. The vehicle was legally purchased with money he received from a life insurance policy after his father’s death.
Timbs sued the police to get the vehicle back, but the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the decision, arguing that the Eighth Amendment’s clause on “excessive fines” doesn’t apply to state actions. Timbs took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the “excessive fines” clause applies to state governments through the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Supreme Court’s ruling has left the attorneys of police departments across Florida evaluating their asset forfeiture policies, which often end up benefiting the state’s most powerful elected officials. Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, has reportedly flown around the state on a plane police seized from a drug dealer. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has used a vehicle seized from a convicted criminal as his official city transportation.
Several police departments told the press that they were already abiding by the Supreme Court’s decision. Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said existing laws are already restrictive, and his agency doesn’t make much from auctioning seized assets.
“It will have little impact if any. We were in consideration of the Eighth Amendment,” Perez told the Miami Herald. “Our policies were in line with what the court went by already. So we don’t expect any changes.”
Perez’s statement doesn’t seem to apply to the police departments of other cities in South Florida. A 2014 investigative report by the Sun Sentinel found that the Broward County city of Sunrise (population: 90,000) seized more than $2 million in cash in 2012, which is more than three times what was seized by other cities in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Much of this money was reportedly used as overtime pay for officers working the sting operations that led to the seizures.
Last week’s ruling unfortunately didn’t provide exact calculations for determining what constitutes a fair fine or seizure, but it may help to reform how Florida’s police departments currently handle seizures.
South Florida Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
Has your property been seized using asset forfeiture? Contact Brian Silber, P.A. to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of South Florida’s most experienced civil asset forfeiture attorneys.