A pair of City of Largo court petitions raise questions on the fairness of the state’s Contraband Forfeiture Act.
Ronisha Ke’irra Scott, 24, is a St. Petersburg resident. An African-American woman, Scott lives in a 675-square-foot St. Petersburg home appraised by the county at $26,435, with a sales value of $31,900.
On June 1, Largo Police arrested Scott for running a stop sign and having “excessively tinted windows.” During the stop, officers allegedly found two dilaudid pain pills and a lit marijuana cigarette in her 2004 Chevrolet Cavalier.
Scott insisted neither the pills nor the joint were hers.
Before the June 1 incident, Pinellas County records show Scott’s only criminal charge had been in 2016 for misdemeanor retail theft.
Gary Stevens Sunday is a 47-year-old Clearwater resident. Sunday, a white male, owns a 1,336-square-foot home that the county appraises at $139,931, with a sales value of $172,600.
On the same day as Scott’s detention, Largo Police also arrested Sunday after allegedly finding methamphetamine in small baggies, a meth pipe, syringes, a safe, and a digital scale in his 2015 Kia Optima SX.
Sunday, like Scott, denied the items belonged to him. The arrest report does not explain why police stopped him.
Sunday was charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to sell, possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. According to his arrest report, he is unemployed.
Online dockets show Stevens pleaded “not guilty” to the criminal charges.
A common interpretation of Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture Act is that law enforcement can seize and permanently keep certain items that were an instrument of, or a product of, a crime. Defendants need not have been convicted of the crime, nor even be charged.
On June 9, the City of Largo filed separate court petitions in Pinellas County Circuit Court to seize the vehicle from each of two wildly different criminal suspects — Scott and Sunday.
The requests raise several issues about the fairness of Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture Act.
If Sunday is accused of dealing in illegal drugs, the Act would seem reasonable — although some legal experts argue it is unfair to seize a defendant’s property unless (or until) he or she is charged and convicted of a crime.
On the other hand, Scott’s alleged crime was not dealing drugs, and her record shows no such offense in the past. In this case, seizing her vehicle might seem unnecessarily harsh, especially if Scott needs the vehicle to drive to work.
Taking Scott’s car could drive her further into poverty.
While an attorney is representing Sunday in his “not guilty” plea, online dockets show Scott has not yet filed a plea, nor does she have an attorney.
All this leads to one question: Is Largo’s attempted seizure of Scott’s car an appropriate, reasonable and legal application of Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture law?