Monday, May 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: Government shouldn't be able to just seize your stuff

Police across Florida can seize cash and cars without ever having to make an arrest or charge the owner with a crime. Known as "civil forfeiture," these laws allow agencies to generate millions of dollars in seized property for their own use.

Fortunately, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, introduced a bill to overhaul this practice. Earlier this month, his bill, SB 1044, unanimously passed both the Florida Senate and House of Representatives. It now awaits Gov. Rick Scott's signature.

First, Brandes' legislation would require agencies to arrest a property owner before seizing his or her vehicle. Although this new arrest requirement would not apply to cash and other "monetary instruments," it would go far in protecting property rights for many Floridians. A report by the Florida Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found that vehicles were the most commonly seized asset, composing more than two-thirds of all seizure actions in the state.

Second, one of the more inspired reforms in the bill would remove the profit incentive from the abusive practice of low-value seizures. If enacted, SB 1044 would raise agencies' filing fee to begin a forfeiture action to $1,000 and require agencies to post a $1,500 bond. If a property owner prevails, he or she would receive that bond in its entirety.

Currently, the value of the property at stake in many forfeiture cases is less than the cost to hire an attorney. That forces many innocent Floridians to settle or to simply walk away. In fact, a mere 16 percent of seizures are even challenged, according to the accountability office. But by increasing the costs for law enforcement to pursue forfeiture actions, SB 1044 could dramatically curb attempts to take relatively modest sums.

Third, property owners who do fight back in court would be more likely to prevail. The standard of proof needed to forfeit property in civil court would be raised to beyond a reasonable doubt, the same standard for securing a criminal conviction.

Moreover, SB 1044 would enact several administrative improvements. For instance, agencies would have to spend or donate at least 25 percent of their forfeiture proceeds on programs like drug treatment, education and prevention; the minimum is currently 15 percent. The bill would also ban agencies from anticipating future forfeiture proceeds for their budgets and would outlaw seizure quotas for "the employment, salary, promotion, or other compensation of any law enforcement officer." Those provisions would better ensure police are dedicated to public safety, rather than their own financial gain.

According to a recent report by the Institute for Justice, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement collected more than $117 million in forfeiture proceeds from 2009 to 2014, though that amount may include both federal and state proceeds. As for local agencies, the accountability office found that "at least $68 million in assets were forfeited" over the past five fiscal years. In just fiscal 2014, agencies reportedly spent more than $12 million in forfeiture funds. Yet only half of Florida's law enforcement agencies even responded to the accountability office, so the true amounts are certainly higher.

To that end, the bill would institute new transparency requirements. Agencies would finally be required to conduct annual reports disclosing their seizure and forfeiture activity, including how much was spent and received in forfeiture proceeds. Noncompliance could lead to a $5,000 civil fine.

Curtailing unjust police seizures is one of those rare issues where conservatives, libertarians and progressives can find common ground. Brandes' reform bill has brought together a truly diverse, bipartisan coalition including Americans for Tax Reform, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Florida ACLU, the Institute for Justice and the James Madison Institute. The governor should sign it.

Justin Pearson and Nick Sibilla work at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that has litigated numerous civil forfeiture cases. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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