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Supreme Court ruling has Florida police reassessing how they seize cars and cash

The 9-0 ruling struck at the heart of a practice derisively known as “policing for profit," where police can seize someone’s assets if they suspect it was involved in a crime.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn used this black 2005 GMC Yukon Denali that may have belonged to an accused pimp. The truck is seen here sitting in his parking spot outside Tampa City Hall in 2011. [DANIEL WALLACE, Times]
Published Feb. 21
Updated Feb. 22

TALLAHASSEE — A sweeping U.S. Supreme Court ruling Wednesday has police chiefs and sheriffs across Florida asking their lawyers whether they need to change how they seize people’s cars, homes and cash.

The 9-0 ruling struck at the heart of a practice derisively known as “policing for profit,” where police can seize someone’s assets if they suspect it was involved in a crime. In 2017, the most recent year that data is available, Florida’s more than 400 police departments seized more than $23 million in cash and other assets.

The unanimous decision is hailed by advocates who have long pushed for reforming the system, including state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. He said Thursday that Florida now needs to change its laws to conform to the ruling.

“I think it’s going to have a significant impact on seizures,” Brandes said. “And I think it’s another area where we need to make sure that Florida law conforms to the new Supreme Court ruling.”

The Supreme Court decision centered on the case of an Indiana man whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized by police after he was caught selling a few hundred dollars’ worth of heroin. The Land Rover was legally bought with money from a life insurance policy after the man’s father died.

The man sued police to get it back, but the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the decision, saying that the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which prohibits “excessive fines” imposed on citizens, didn’t apply to state actions.

The decision didn’t say that the man’s case was an “excessive fine,” but it did say that the prohibition on “excessive fines” applied to state governments.

That’s left lawyers for police departments across the state evaluating their own policies that often end up serving the state’s most powerful elected officials.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said last month he was flying around the state on a plane that police seized from a drug dealer (it wasn’t seized from drug dealers, but past planes in the state fleet have been). After becoming Tampa mayor in 2011, Bob Buckhorn used an SUV seized from a convicted pimp as his official city vehicle. (His spokeswoman said he no longer rides in it, but won’t say if his current city vehicle was seized from a criminal.)

Several agencies said they were already abiding by the Supreme Court’s interpretation.

In St. Petersburg, police general counsel Sasha Lohn said the department has been preparing for such a clarification since at least 2015. The department said $117,888 was forfeited in 2018.

“The quick and dirty version is it’s not going to impact us,” Lohn said. “We were already evaluating each asset forfeiture as it came to make sure it was proportional to the crime that was charged.”

Though the U.S. Supreme Court did not provide exact calculations for determining a fair fine or seizure, Lohn said Florida statutes lay out a clear framework.

For instance, a third-degree felony in Florida, like stealing a car, carries a maximum fine of $5,000.

While seizures of property can sometimes serve as a deterrent to crime, excessive forfeiture programs damage officers’ relationships with residents, running counter to the community-oriented policing models adopted in a number of cities across the country.

“You’ve got some that have been constantly abusive,” Brandes said. “You’ve got cities like Sunrise that, while they only have a small little police department, are in the top 10 list of civil asset forfeitures every year in the state of Florida.”

A 2014 Sun-Sentinel investigation found that the Broward County city of Sunrise (pop: 90,000) hauled in $2 million in forfeited cash in 2012, more than three times as any other city in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

In 2011, Sunrise raised $4 million. Much of this money was spent on overtime pay on officers working the sting operations seizing the money. The city boasted a parking lot full of seized cars.

Sunrise police spokesman Officer Chris Piper said the department’s lawyers were reviewing the case. But he dismissed the Sun-Sentinel series as driven by defense attorneys who were unsuccessful in getting their clients’ assets returned to them in the courts.

“Those were defense attorneys that were losing in court,” he said. “We were going into court and winning in court.”

Sunrise police were far from the only ones accused of abusing the system, however.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice found that police in Bal Harbour, an upscale town of 3,300 in Miami-Dade County, spent cash they seized from suspected criminals on salaries and benefits that included first-class flights, luxury car rentals, golf outings, meals, stays at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico and shopping sprees at Home Depot and Party City.

Federal officials shut down the operation.

Those abuses and others led to Brandes leading a bipartisan effort to overhaul the system in Florida, with the Legislature passing a bill in 2016 that made it more costly for police to seize assets, and requiring that police departments report its seizures to the state.

Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said the state’s laws are already restrictive and his department doesn’t make much money from auctioning off seized property.

“It will have little impact if any. We were in consideration of the Eighth Amendment,” Perez said. “Our policies were in line with what the court went by, already. So we don’t expect any changes.”

“The punishment has to fit the crime,” he added. “If someone has a baggie of drugs in his pocket, we’re not going to take his Lamborghini from him.”

A spokeswoman for the Florida Sheriffs Association declined to comment, saying the organization was reviewing it and waiting for a review from the National Sheriffs Association.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Florida courts have ruled since the 1990s that forfeitures are punitive in nature, and therefore he said police should approach them with constitutional limits in mind.

Forfeiture values might exceed the statutory framework for fines in some cases, he said, but anything excessive — roughly more than three times the legal fine amount — is wrong.

“People who commit crimes shouldn’t benefit from their crimes,” Gualtieri said, but law enforcement should have limits, too.

Miami Herald staff writer Chuck Rabin and Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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