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Asset Forfeiture Bills Pass First Panel

Elvert Barnes via Flickr

Monday, Senators took up two civil asset forfeiture bills that pursue slightly different policies to rein in the controversial practice.

Senate Republicans Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach) and Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) are uncomfortable with the current asset seizure policy.

“We just want to bring a little extra filter,” Bean said in his office last December.  “A little extra—extra check, I guess, before you take somebody’s assets.”

Brandes, though, is a bit more adversarial.

“We’ve seen the level of assets go from the million dollar drug plane to simply the $2,500 car,” Brandes said around the same time.  “It was never designed for that purpose and it’s essentially a way that law enforcement has been taxing and self-appropriating funds.”

And that last bit is why past efforts to limit civil asset forfeiture has run into such stiff opposition in the law enforcement community.  The assets agencies seize help fund law enforcement activities. 

“Over the past five years the reporting agencies identified $68 million in forfeited assets that were collected and deposited into their trust fund under the state law,” Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability analyst Byron Brown says.

This was a big selling point in the 1980s and 1990s: let’s use the money we take from drug dealers to build the prisons we lock them up in.  But now, state lawmakers and even some law enforcement officials acknowledge the system is too easy to abuse.  Brown explains part of the problem is oversight.

“We found that there are no current reporting requirements,” Brown says.  “As a result there was no existing data on the frequency of seizure actions, the value of assets seized and forfeited in Florida or uses of those forfeited assets.”

Monday, Bean and Brandes pitched their remedies before a Senate panel.  Bean explains his measure leaves the practice intact—instead relying on greater oversight to stop abuse.  

“What it does—as your heard, what we’ve done in Florida is eliminate reporting requirements,” Bean says.  “So this bill right here brings reporting requirements back so we can understand exactly what law enforcement is taking.”

In addition to annual reporting, Bean’s bill would require an agency official—the chief or his or her designate—to sign off on seizures. 

Brandes’ proposal goes further.

“If the government wants to seize your property you must be charged with a crime,” Brandes says.  “If the government wants to keep your property you must be convicted of a crime.”

While Bean’s proposal has drawn the support of the state’s police chiefs and sheriffs, Brandes’ measure faces stiff opposition.  Agencies worry his more aggressive restraints on the practice will leave it ineffective, and they pitched a number of hypothetical situations where requiring a criminal charge would present a problem.  One involved a number of people in a car with cash and cocaine concealed somewhere in the vehicle.

“Here’s what happens,” Brandes explains, “They put out and they say alright we found cocaine and cash in the vehicle, somebody come claim it you have ninety days to come claim it—under my bill you’ll have ninety days to come claim it.”

“If somebody comes to claim the cash and cocaine we arrest them—and you know what?  We can seize it.” he says.  “If nobody claims it, it’s abandoned property and we take it.  That’s what happens.”

The Senate panel approved both measures.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.