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Florida Governor Signs Bill Requiring Actual Criminal Charges Before Seizing Property

Important reform to reduce asset forfeiture abuse

by Scott Shackford     •     Reason.com

Some great news in asset forfeiture reform is coming out of Florida. S.B. 1044, approved by the legislature earlier in the month, was signed into law today by Gov. Rick Scott.

The big deal with this particular reform is that, in most cases, Florida police will actually have to arrest and charge a person with a crime before attempting to seize and keep their money and property under the state’s asset forfeiture laws. One of the major ways asset forfeiture gets abused is that it is frequently a “civil”, not criminal, process where police and prosecutors are able to take property without even charging somebody with a crime, let alone convicting them. This is how police are, for example, able to snatch cash from cars they’ve pulled over and claim they suspect the money was going to be used for drug trafficking without actually finding any drugs.

Florida’s new law will make this a bit harder. From Florida Politics:

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, sponsored the measure, which was supported from both sides of the political spectrum….

“Florida is once again taking a leadership role in the defense of private property rights, and other states should look to our work and enact similar reforms to protect the rights of their residents,” Brandes said.

Bill Piper, senior director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, also celebrated Friday’s signing.

“The notion that police officers can take cash or other property from people never charged with any criminal wrongdoing and keeping any profits from the sale of seized property doesn’t sit well with the public,” he said. “Voters want action on civil asset forfeiture and it was smart politics for Gov. Scott to sign off on this.”

That’s good news for civil asset forfeiture reformers in the wake of the bad news earlier in the week that the Department of Justice has restarted its federal “equitable sharing” asset forfeiture program that allows law enforcement agencies to partner with the federal government and then keep a huge chunk of what they seize. Police departments often use this program to attempt to bypass restrictions their states put in place that either establish tougher rules for seizures or reduce how much money or property police are allowed to keep.

In Florida’s case, the law is written so that a property seizure may only take place if the owner of the property is arrested for a crime for which said property would be described as “contraband.” That appears to put in place restrictions that would avoid a federal bypass.

Read more about the law from the Institute of Justice here.