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Civil forfeiture bill passes Senate, heads to House floor

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The Florida Senate approved a bill Friday that would reform civil forfeiture and reduce wrongful seizures of personal property. Under current law officers can seize a person’s property if they suspect it was gained as a result of or might be used in criminal activity.

The owner of seized property does not currently have to be arrested in order for a police officer to seize his or her property.

“If you told the average person that the government could seize their property through civil asset forfeiture without ever making an arrest, they would be shocked,” said Senator Jeff Brandes who introduced the bill. “This legislation makes sweeping changes to civil forfeiture and institutes major consumer protections to prevent abuses against the property rights of Floridians. The legislation passed today represents the work of a coalition of reform advocates including civil libertarian organizations and law enforcement, and I look forward to the favorable consideration of this bill by the House.”

An identical bill needs approval in the Florida House before heading to Governor Rick Scott’s Desk.

The bill would require any seizure of a person’s assets to coincide with an arrest. If an arrest is not made, the property cannot be taken. Those types of property seized by law enforcement typically include things like cash, cars, jewelry and even homes. There would be limited exceptions to that rule.

The bill also requires law enforcement agencies taking possession of a person’s property to demonstrate probably cause in court within 10 days after the seizure. It also increases the cost of filing fees, implements a $1,500 bond payable to the claimant if the forfeiture is not successful.

The provisions are intended to protect property owners from unlawful seizures by ensuring law enforcement agencies are sure the assets are appropriate for forfeiture by making the process more expensive. The bond is intended to compensate claimants for costs associated with reclaiming their property. Under current law it is often not worthwhile for a person to spend potentially thousands of dollars to claim property worth less than the cost to retrieve it.

Law enforcement leaders and prosecutors were originally against civil forfeiture reform measures, but a recent compromise ensured those agencies could still utilize the process while still protecting property rights. A similar measure with even more restrictions failed in the legislature last year.

This year’s bill comes as the issue gains national attention. The U.S. Department of Justice recently Justice announced the restructuring of federal asset forfeiture protocols. The Institute for Justice has also criticized Florida’s current law giving is a “D” rating.

Civil forfeiture reform is a national policy priority for the Drug Policy Alliance. The group targeted Florida.

“This is a tremendous step towards reforming Florida’s outdated forfeiture laws. The unanimity of the Senate vote speaks volumes to the necessity of these important reforms.  DPA hopes that the House acts quickly to pass this law when it meets next week,” said DPA senior staff attorney Theshia Naidoo on the bill’s passage in the Senate.

The bill has also attracted support from some key players in Florida politics.

“This legislation heads to the House with consensus amongst both parties, law enforcement, and reform advocates,” said DPA lobbyist Ron Book. “We hope the House will act with the same unanimity that the Senate just did.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri recently spoke in favor of the bill in a Senate committee hearing. And in an op-ed published in the Daytona Beach News Journal, Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre also supported the bill.

HB 889 and SB 1044 seek to correct some issues with forfeiture, and do so in a way that still allows sheriffs and police departments to utilize this important crime-fighting tool.” Manfre wrote.

The bill has even earned support from a high-profile Republican, Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist.

“Florida is not a tin pot dictatorship. It is also not a dystopia. It is an American state that has demonstrated respect for the taxpayer and respect for the rule of law,” he said.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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