On To The Governor: Civil Forfeiture Bill Passes House

Mar 8, 2016

Credit US Army Garrison, Miami via Flickr

Civil asset forfeiture changes are on their way to the governor.  The House approved the reform package Tuesday.

It doesn’t happen all the time, but every so often an issue comes along that unites activists on the right and the left.

“Around the country you have interest groups as diverse as the ACLU, and libertarian groups like CATO and Reason Foundation that joined together and called his problem out,” Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) says.

He gained approval for civil asset forfeiture changes last week in the Senate.  Tuesday in the House, it was Rep. Larry Metz’s (R-Yalaha) turn.

The controversial procedure allows law enforcement agencies to seize property officers believe is connected with crime.  But the practice has raised concerns because seizures don’t require an arrest and in some cases agencies have clearly abused the system.  What’s more, a report last year from the Legislature’s research agency depicts a patchwork of different policies with little oversight.  Only about half the state’s Police and Sheriff’s departments even responded to researchers’ requests. 

But law enforcement says it’s important to preserve the practice, and on the House floor Tuesday, Rep. Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonville) explains why.

“Members, civil asset forfeiture is a very important tool of law enforcement,” McBurney says.  “In my previous life when I was an assistant state attorney, I handled civil asset forfeiture cases.  We were able to take millions and millions of dollars from drug dealers.  Some of those assets we took from drug dealers were used to pay things for law enforcement.”

That’s the rub.  Law and order types like forfeiture because it takes money from criminals and puts it to work fighting crime.  But civil liberty types, again, from all across the political spectrum, see this as a perverse incentive—encouraging law enforcement to take property to fund police operations. 

A measure championed by Brandes would’ve addressed that incentive by sending all forfeiture proceeds to charity.  It failed under fierce criticism from the state’s law enforcement agencies.  But Metz says this year things are a bit different.

“There were actually two bills filed on this subject matter this session the two senate sponsors, Senator Bean and Senator Brandes along with the house members myself and Representative Caldwell came together and merged the bills into what you have before you,” Metz explains, “and I appreciate the Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Chief of Police Association for their hard work in helping us get to a consensus bill.”

So how’d they do it? 

Instead of sending everything to charity, the measure raises the contribution requirement from 15 to 25 percent.  It also mandates a number of new oversight and transparency procedures.  Before agencies can seize a person’s assets they’ll need to make an arrest, and once the matter comes up in court, the state will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the asset is the product of a crime.  This is the same standard as a criminal case.  Under current law the burden is a bit lower—just clear and convincing evidence.  The bill is now on its way to the governor’s desk.  It passed the House and Senate unanimously.