TALLAHASSEE — Florida is one step closer to overhauling laws that allow law enforcement agencies to take property, cars and cash from suspected criminals after lawmakers sent Gov. Rick Scott a bill Monday that would give more protection to citizens targeted by police.
The House unanimously passed the bill that would require an arrest before police can seize assets. It's designed to prevent abuses under the current law, which allows law enforcement agencies to take money and property based on the mere suspicion of illegal activity.
"What we've shown is law enforcement groups can work with the property rights groups and the civil libertarians and we can find a compromise that works with everyone," said Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg.
Law enforcement groups were fighting the bill until Brandes removed language that would have also required a conviction for agencies to keep seized cash and property. A diverse coalition of groups has been fighting for changes to forfeiture laws, ranging from tea party supporters to the American Civil Liberties Union. Brandes' compromise was supported by groups representing police chiefs and sheriffs.
The bill (SB 1044) also requires law enforcement agencies to file reports each year documenting asset seizures and what they do with money and property taken. There are other protections for citizens, such as requiring law enforcement agencies to pay $1,000 in court fees upon seizing property and put up a $1,500 bond that would go to the property owner if a court decides assets were improperly seized.
"This is a really substantial improvement," said ACLU of Florida director of public policy Michelle Richardson.
She said the reporting requirement will go a long way to determine whether the forfeiture laws continue to be abused. And she said Florida's approach could find support in states where bills requiring a conviction to seize property have failed.
"It will be the first time we get a real thorough look at exactly how this is working," she said.
The Institute for Justice has also been pushing nationally for changes to civil asset forfeiture laws. It praised Brandes' bill.
"Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on property rights in America and SB 1044 increases protections for innocent property owners in the Sunshine State. The transparency requirements will provide valuable information which should lead to more needed reform in the future," said Justin Pearson, an attorney with the Institute for Justice's Florida office.
The law will take effect July 1 if Scott signs the bill.