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Lawmakers find accord with law enforcement on civil forfeiture bill

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An amended bill that would reshape the way civil forfeiture works in Florida passed the House Judiciary Committee Thursday. Under current law, law enforcement can seize a person’s property, including cash, if they suspect it is being used to commit a crime or is the proceed from crime.

Under that scenario, no charges have to be filed against the person whose property is being seized.

The amended House bill now requires an arrest, with limited exceptions, before officers can take property. For law enforcement to enter into forfeiture of the property, which means they keep it, the agency must pay a $1,000 filing fee to the court and post a $1,500 bond payable to the property claimant if forfeiture proceedings are not successful.

That means the claimant would recover his or her property and also recoup an extra $1,500. That provision aims to ensure the claimant is reimbursed for costs associated with recovering the property.

The amendment raises the attorney’s fees that claimants can recover from $1,000 to $2,000. It also implements a 10-day window for law enforcement to obtain a seizure warrant. Under current law, there is little way to track seizures to determine whether they were proper. It provides meaningful oversight that will aid policy makers in making future changes to the law.

The measure provides transparency by requiring law enforcement to report all seized property and the type of property each year. An agency in noncompliance would have to pay a penalty.

“It really highlights the importance of private property rights and ensures that reasonable due process is used if we’re ever going to seize someone’s assets,” said State Sen. Jeff Brandes, sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.

As amended, the bill is now supported by the Florida Sheriffs Association, Florida Police Chiefs Association, the ACLU, NFIB, Institute for Justice, Drug Policy Alliance, James Madison Institute and Americans for Forfeiture Reform.

The compromise was the result of an intense back and forth between groups. Law enforcement and prosecutors have been vehemently opposed to civil forfeiture reform arguing it is a valuable tool to offer additional consequences against criminal activity and a way for law enforcement to bring in appropriate revenue.

But the process has become the subject of much scrutiny. It’s an issue that has extended well beyond the boundaries of Florida. John Oliver, the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” tackled the issue using his token humor and wit to highlight the problems with civil forfeiture laws.

He showed one man traveling cross-country with a large amount of cash borrowed from his father to get started in a new place with a new job. During a traffic stop, officers seized the cash, claiming he was traveling to another state to purchase drugs. No charges were filed.

Oliver highlighted another couple whose home was seized because the couple’s son was arrested on charges of possessing just $40 worth of cocaine.

The problem, as noted in the Oliver piece, is that civil forfeiture laws place the actual property as the subject of a civil suit, not the person. That’s how law enforcement can get around seizing property even if charges aren’t filed.

The Florida bill moving through the Legislature turns that on its head by putting additional pressure on law enforcement to prove the property was lawfully seized and safeguards claimants trying to retrieve their property. The bill gives those individuals a better recourse for recouping something valued at $1,000 when current law makes doing so potentially not worth the while.

Oliver showed several video clips shining a spotlight on problems associated with civil forfeiture. There’s a montage of several officers asking individuals at traffic stops whether or not they have large sums of U.S. currency on them. One officer even attempts to ask the question in mangled Spanish calling it “mucho mucho dinero” and refers to the man’s truck as “su trucky trailer.”

Another clip shows a member of police brass describing the items purchased through civil forfeiture as “pennies from heaven” used to buy “toys.”

But even though the amendment to this year’s civil forfeiture bill provides property rights protection, it also ensures law enforcement can still continue to seize property when it’s legal to do so.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is behind the measure, finally agreed in the late hours of Wednesday evening. However, he does take issue with using isolated incidents to make a case against civil forfeiture.

“We find there is more to the story and two sides to that coin,” Gualtieri said.

He described an example he’s heard before about a woman whose car was seized over one prescription pill. In that case, Gualtieri explained, the woman had been the subject of six law enforcement observed drug buys.

Brandes suspects there was finally buy-in from law enforcement groups because they recognized the issue was not going away. Brandes offered up a similar bill last year.

“My commitment was to work on this until we got a substantial solution,” Brandes said.

The Senate bill has one more stop in committee before heading to the floor for a full vote. Brandes said he’s confident that with the latest compromise, the issue will be passed this year.

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 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

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