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Jeff Brandes civil forfeiture reform bill moves in Florida Senate

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Legislation that would reform Florida’s civil forfeiture laws advanced in a Senate committee on Thursday.

The bill (SB 1044) sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, eliminates civil forfeiture in the state of Florida. Under the proposal, a seizure of assets or property may only take place following the arrest of a property owner, and the final forfeiture of those assets or property under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act may only be completed after a defendant has been convicted of a criminal act which has rendered the property as contraband articles.

Under current law, police can seize assets without even bringing charges against a defendant.

“Property rights are pivotal to the foundation of liberty, and civil forfeiture has been eroding that foundation for decades,” Brandes said in introducing the bill in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice. “Today we have strong bipartisan support behind the simple notion that the government should have to arrest you before they can take your property, and if they want to keep your property because they believe it is contraband then the government must seek the highest standard our justice system affords – proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Civil asset forfeiture laws became in vogue with law enforcement agencies in the 1980s, where they became empowered to seize the property and money associated with criminal organizations involved in the illegal drug trade. The agencies that seized the assets were allowed to keep the proceeds resulting from their seizures, creating a powerful financial incentive to seize and forfeit property. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, however, with civil forfeiture, a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime – or even charged – to permanently lose her cash, car, home, or other property.

Brandes has been working with the Florida Sheriffs Association to get their buy in, and he added an amendment on Thursday that would provide two exceptions to the arrest requirement before the initial seizure:  One would make sure that if the property owner could not be identified, the property would be treated as abandoned property.

The second exception would mandate that in the event of there being  probable cause to make an arrest, but the individual is a fugitive or dies before the arrest can be made, it clarifies that when a seizing agency takes property or assets without an identified owner, the final forfeiture is completed as provided under the abandoned property.

But after a representative of the FSA waived in opposition, committee chairman Joe Negron (who is co-sponsor of the bill) went on the attack, saying it didn’t appear that his accommodations were making any inroads with the group.

“Senator Brandes is a skilled negotiator and I admire him for doing this, but at some point you have to ask yourself, why do I keep making accomodatoins with a party if they’re getting the best of both worlds? ” Negron said. “They’re getting me to change the bill in ways that I otherwise would not. At the same time, the Sheriffs Association apparently is reserving the right to keep opposing the bill. Do you believe that is that a fair way to work with senators and representative in the process? And what are you offering to Brandes in exchange for these accommodations that he ‘s making. Or are you offering nothing?”

Sarah Carroll with the Sheriffs Association said that there was plenty of give and take going on between her organization and Brandes, and she said the amendment passed in the committee was a positive step forward.

The bill passed through the committee on a 5-2 vote, with Tampa Democrat Arthenia Joyner and Orange Park Republican Rob Bradley opposed.

Lehigh Acres Rep. Matt Caldwell is sponsoring the companion bill (HB 883) in the House.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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