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What is Civil Asset Forfeiture & Is It Legal?

By Hager & Schwartz, P.A.

April 19, 2018

You may not hear the term come up in the news all that often, but there’s long been a debate over the practice of civil asset forfeiture. This practice essentially allows law enforcement to seize and take possession of property or assets they believe may be connected to criminal activity. For example, a state with extremely lax views on asset forfeiture could authorize highway patrol troopers to stop vehicles they believe are transporting drugs or money that would be used to purchase drugs and seize it as evidence. In many states, law enforcement agencies can use these seized assets to fund their own departments and operations.

The difference from search and seizure is that civil asset forfeiture is exactly as its name says: “civil.” That means officers may be able to seize assets without ever arresting someone or charging them with a crime, let alone earning a conviction.

On one hand, law enforcement agencies and supporters say that this is a valuable and extremely effective tool at keeping crime levels down, particularly the drug trade, as their money or drugs could be seized by law enforcement at any time should they be arrested. On the other, civil rights activists argue that this practice allows law enforcement to conduct illegal and unjustified searches, seizing property they have no right to take from innocent people who have no evidence or case brought against them. And these groups have cited a number of instances where officers have seized money from victims at traffic stops, claiming the money was going to be used in drug trafficking without ever finding any evidence of drugs or even motive to support their claim.

Florida’s Civil Forfeiture Laws

The thing that gets the most confusing for people is that the standards for what is required to warrant asset forfeiture varies from state to state. In some states, officers can choose to seize assets with nothing more than “reasonable suspicion” that the assets may be connected to a crime. In others, assets may not be seized without a suspect first being convicted of a crime in court.

Anti-forfeiture groups recently won a tremendous victory for their liberties and property rights. Governor Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 1044 into law on April 1st, 2016, further tightening the requirements that law enforcement must abide by in order to legally seize someone’s property. Under the new bill, Florida police will actually have to make an arrest and charge someone with a crime before police or other law enforcement agencies can take their property away. Furthermore, law enforcement wouldn’t be able to seize just any property, but only that would could be described as “contraband,” or property that has a direct connection to criminal activity.

Reformers hailed this law for its specificity and ability to close off a loophole that many law enforcement agencies were using to get around state-mandated requirements for asset forfeiture, such as the “equitable sharing” practice that encouraged local agencies to seize property beyond their legally-allowable means by partnering with the federal government. While the new bill doesn’t expressly prohibit law enforcement from participating in equitable sharing, the new law makes it almost impossible. The bill also received wide support from both sides of the political aisle.

If you believe you have been wrongfully arrested on suspicion of a crime, you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to a Miami criminal defense attorney who can represent you and fight back against your prosecution. Call Hager & Schwartz, P.A. today at (305) 330-1360 to request a consultation!