Civil Forfeiture Bill Sheds Major Provision But Moves Forward
Senators got into a bipartisan fight Thursday over Florida’s civil forfeiture procedures. The underlying bill passed its committee but not before lawmakers stripped out out a plan to prohibit law enforcement agencies using seized goods for their own operation.
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal mechanism that allows law enforcement to confiscate property they believe is involved in criminal activity. In particular, it’s often used in drug trafficking investigations. The idea is to hobble individuals or organizations the police reasonably believe are breaking the law, even if they aren’t able to bring charges. But therein lies the problem. Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) says the program is too easy to abuse.
“Civil asset forfeiture was designed for the million dollar cocaine deals, and the extreme money laundering,” Brandes says. “It was never ever designed to take a few thousand dollars from somebody at the side of the road, but that’s what it’s become.”
And not surprisingly, the practice raises constitutional concerns among people and groups across the political spectrum. The American Civil Liberties Union and the James Madison Institute have both spoken against it this session, but Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri argues the system is already constrained.
“There’s no requirement that you be charged with a crime,” Gualtieri says, “however, ok, there has to be probable cause that criminal activity has occurred.”
Brandes argues Florida’s system of civil forfeiture creates a perverse incentive to confiscate, because agencies can use the revenue from seized assets to purchase additional equipment. So he’s proposed a measure requiring any money raised through asset forfeiture be funneled to charitable organizations or the Attorney General’s victims trust fund. But Gualtieri says without funds from civil forfeiture, it will be difficult for local agencies to pay for important equipment.
“It’s either go without, or find a way in these tight budget times—we’re still in very tight budget times at least at a local level, find a way to use tax payer money for those legitimate expenses,” Gualtieri says. “It’s either do without or the taxpayer’s got to fund it, and we believe that that’s why you don’t take a sledgehammer to this, and that’s why we continue to use drug dealer money to pay for these good law enforcement expenditures.
But this is where the argument gets really complicated. Law enforcement is already prohibited from using seized funds for normal operating expenses. But much of the equipment he’s referring to—things like a finger print machine, polygraph materials, or canine units—seem like normal operating expenses, at least to an outside observer. And Sen. Joe Negron (R-Palm City) pointed to this reliance on seized funds in his arguments in support of Brandes.
“What has happened in these arguments against his amendment are exactly proof of why there is a problem,” Negron says, “because the argument is now we have to take things from citizens without due process because we need the money.”
But many lawmakers argue Brandes’ approach removing incentives, sidesteps the problem of abuse. And in a weird twist, Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner cobbled together bipartisan support for an amendment essentially maintaining the status quo—because everyone agrees the system is broken.
“Everybody agrees that the Florida civil forfeiture law is faulty, it’s terrible, it infringes on the due process of the persons who get stopped,” Joyner says, “and that’s what we need to be dealing with.”
With Joyner’s amendment in place, Brandes’ bill no longer mandates seized funds go to charity or the victims trust fund. But the bill did pass. And although Brandes says he won’t try to change the financing requirements back, he is mulling a floor amendment requiring a probable cause hearing for any seizures within 72 hours.