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Jeff Brandes files bill to amend civil forfeiture law in Florida

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Six weeks after he said he was considering filing such legislation, St. Petersburg Republican state Senator Jeff Brandes today filed a bill that prohibits law enforcement agencies from retaining property and assets seized from individuals who are not convicted of a crime.

Civil forfeiture is a controversial legal process in which police take assets from persons suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing.

The legislation amends the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act to prevent law enforcement from supplementing their budgets through assets seized in civil forfeiture proceedings. Under the proposal, property such as vehicles cannot be retained by a law enforcement agency and any assets that are legally seized from an individual under the Contraband Forfeiture Act must be split equally between local charities and the State of Florida Crime Victims Compensation Trust Fund.

“This legislation recognizes the inherent deficiencies in the current civil asset forfeiture law of Florida and seeks to remove potential conflicts,”Brandes said in a statement. “There is a growing concern nationally about civil asset forfeiture and Florida should be a leader in reform on this issue.”

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing, prompting Attorney General Eric Holder to announce last month that he was barring local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges. The Washington Post called it the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

The issue has been of concern to groups like the ACLU for years, and has been garnering more support from libertarian and conservative groups more recently. Last fall, HBO’s John Oliver did a segment on it on his weekly Sunday night comedy show.

The Florida Sheriffs Association informed Florida Politics this afternoon that they oppose the bill.

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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