Lawmakers trying to stop police from taking drug suspects' property before conviction
Two state lawmakers are trying to stop law enforcement agencies from seizing the personal property of people they believe have committed crimes such as drug trafficking.
"If the state's going to keep your property, first you should be convicted of a crime," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
Currently in Florida, it doesn't require a criminal conviction or even charges to be brought against a suspect for law enforcement to use what's called "civil assest forfeiture." Basically, the idea is that if someone is suspected of bringing drugs into the country via a private airplane, the police could take the plane to ensure no further crimes are committed during an investigation or trial.
Brandes and Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, say it's a serious problem, one that has escalated in recent years to the point that police are using at as a way to bring in money to fund programs for public safety. So on Thursday they filed bills (SB 1044, HB 883) to change the way asset forfeiture works in Florida.
Under their proposals, law enforcement could seize property associated with a crime only after charges have been filed by the state attorney's office and then only temporarily. When suspects aren't found guilty, their property would have to be returned to them. When they're convicted, law enforcement could take assets permanently.
"What do you do with the aircraft that brings in 20 kilos of cocaine from Colombia? That was the original intent," Brandes said. "I think the original intent has been perverted over time to where we've seized a car in Florida for one illegal pill in that car. We've taken homes because somebody's child sold drugs out in front of the property and we've seized the entire property."
But they will face strong opposition from those in law enforcement.
The Florida Sheriff's Association and Florida Police Chiefs Association have both taken positions against any legislation that rolls back civil asset forfeiture.
On their legislative priorities website, the FSA writes that it will, "oppose legislation that would remove law enforcement’s ability to legally seize criminals’ assets and then utilize these assets to purchase critical public safety equipment."