Contact: Mikayla Hellwich
FLORIDA PASSES SWEEPING CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE REFORM
Gov. Scott Signs After Unanimous Bipartisan Vote in Both Houses
Tallahassee, FL – Today, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed civil asset forfeiture reform bill SB 1044. The new law strengthens individual property rights and holds police departments to a higher standard of record keeping and accountability. Civil forfeiture is a legal process by which law enforcement can seize property and money from individuals merely suspected of criminal activity, even if they are never charged with a crime. The practice has fostered questionable incentives for law enforcement agencies to benefit financially from a process that infringes on civil liberties. SB 1044 was unanimously supported in both the House and Senate and lauded by civil liberties and law enforcement organizations. According to a new poll from Drug Policy Action, 84% of registered Florida voters believe that police should not be able to seize and permanently take away property from people who have not been convicted of a crime.
“As enforcers of the law, we have a duty to stand up against policies that are unjust and recognize when our voices can be a powerful force for positive change,” said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals working to end civil forfeiture and the drug war. “Although there is more to be done, the Florida Sheriff’s Association and the Florida Association of Police Chiefs deserve recognition for making steps towards more sensible policies.”
Also on the lengthy list of SB 1044 supporters are the Drug Policy Alliance, Florida American Civil Liberties Union, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Institute for Justice, and Americans for Tax Reform.
The bill changes Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture Act, which decides how and when law enforcement agencies are able to seize assets. SB 1044 requires that police make an arrest in order to seize property in most cases, increases the evidentiary standard of proof from “clear and convincing” to “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” holds the agency accountable for damages on seized property, and outlines reporting requirements for agencies to track forfeitures. No such requirement existed previously. Currently, Florida law enforcement agencies seizing assets of more than $15,000 per year must donate 15% of those assets to predetermined programs. The new law increases the donation requirement to 25%.
In nearly every U.S. state, law enforcement can seize money and property from individuals without seeking or obtaining a criminal conviction. Civil forfeiture places the legal burden of proof on the property (in-rem) rather than the owner (in personam), meaning the property is being charged rather than the person who owns it. Another type of forfeiture called “criminal forfeiture” requires the officer to obtain a conviction and ultimately accuses the property owner of criminal activity rather than the property being seized. This practice is generally considered beneficial because it aligns with the constitutional right to due process. According to a 2015 report by the Institute for Justice, 87% of forfeitures in the U.S. between 1997 and 2013 were civil and only 13% involved criminal cases. The same report graded Florida’s previous civil forfeiture laws with a D+ for abysmal individual property rights and unethical incentive for law enforcement to profit from these interactions.
LEAP is committed to ending decades of unconstitutional civil forfeiture laws that have damaged the trust between communities and police, fostered a misuse of law enforcement power, and eroded civil liberties nationwide.