Lawmakers Preparing For Difficult Fight Against Civil Asset Forfeiture

Dec 3, 2015

Rep. Caldwell (left) and Sen. Brandes.
Credit Nick Evans

Two Republican lawmakers are attempting to rein in a law enforcement practice called civil asset forfeiture.  It allows agencies to seize the property of people who they suspect are involved in criminal activity.

Civil asset forfeiture may sound relatively innocuous, but it’s united Libertarian groups on the right and social justice groups on the left.  That’s because in an effort to stamp out crime—mostly drug offenses—some law enforcement agencies have used it to seize property from suspects, sometimes without charging them, much less reaching a conviction.  That’s something Rep. Matt Caldwell (R-North Fort Meyers) wants to see change.

“Honestly, I was totally surprised to learn that you didn’t have to be convicted before your property was permanently taken away from you,” Caldwell says, “and that, I think, should’ve always been a key component of this and that’s why I’m happy to support the bill.”

He’s joining up with Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) to sponsor the bill in the House.  Brandes fought for a different set of restrictions last year, but the state’s law enforcement agencies lined up against him.  The bill later died in committee.  Brandes and Caldwell are likely to face similar pushback in the upcoming session. 

But Brandes says the bill doesn’t eliminate forfeiture, it just makes some common sense changes.

“We still give you access to the tool,” he explains. “You just have to actually charge someone with a crime before you seize assets, and you have to convict them of a crime before you can maintain permanent title.”

“I think Floridians would be shocked to know that they can have their assets seized and never be charged with a crime,” Brandes says.

Meanwhile fellow Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) is working on a bill to increase oversight.  It would make agency heads or a designated officer sign off on seizures, and mandate annual reporting of seized property.