Report: Police use civil forfeiture for profit, even when no charges filed

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Under current rules, Florida law enforcement can seize cars, cash, and personal property in the course of an arrest, as a way to boost revenue.

But as agencies begin to rely more on civil forfeiture to balance budgets, some are calling for increased scrutiny of the controversial practice.

Designed to confiscate guns and drug money from dangerous criminals, police use civil forfeiture to take any property during a felony arrest. The arresting agency routinely keeps the property as long as the owner does not raise a challenge, and warrants against the owners are increasingly rare.

Often, says Noah Pransky of WTSP, property owners are never even charged.

According to 10 Investigates, more local law enforcement agencies than ever are utilizing the practice, which brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions.

Although the Local agencies insist they seize property to prevent crime, many have policies of taking property only if it has legitimate cash value. For example, very old cars that and ones with large outstanding loans/liens are not taken.

As for how much money Tampa-area agencies actually make through civil foreclosure, Pransky says it is tough to tell. Various organizations list the revenue under different budget line items and several government programs.

However, one program administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, helped law enforcement agencies take hold of $4.2 billion in property during 2012; records show Florida as one of the top states for the program.

Over the past year, the Florida Highway Patrol confiscated more than 100 vehicles through roadside traffic stops, even when drivers are not charged. Yet many vehicle owners had no choice but to pay the FHP cash to get their property back, or take their claim to court to get it back.

An FHP spokesperson said the agency does not comment on active cases, but they do return vehicles without charge if the owner is innocent.

“No one that makes these (seizure) decisions makes a profit off of it,” FHP Sgt. Steve Gaskins told WTSP. “My pay never is changed because we did or did not seize a car.”

FHP policy is clear; devices used in the commission of a felony will not be seized in regular circumstances if they have no value to the agency. “The sale of a vehicle after the lien has been paid should amount to at least $2,500 in order to justify the costs of litigation,” it says.

“Well, if you have a 15-year-old car that nearly doesn’t run (and) there’s no value in it,” Gaskins added, “the legal cost of seeking forfeiture for something like that would not be worth the time spent.”

Hillsborough County Sheriffs have a similar policy, where they seize vehicles only if they are worth $1,000 or more – after liens are paid.

National watchdog group Institute for Justice estimates more than a  billion dollars since 2002 have been seized  in marijuana-related arrests. Over a million dollars of that was by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, where Sheriff Grady Judd strongly opposed Florida’s Amendment 2, the medicinal marijuana referendum.

Institute for Justice examined U.S. forfeiture laws and recently released a report titled Policing for Profit. Florida’s forfeiture law received a “D” grade, suggesting law enforcement officers were motivated to target expensive property.

The group also criticizes the arbitrary assessment of penalties, which seem not based on the crime, but the property’s value.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.