Light-Fingered Lawmen


Antwon Beloizaire planned to take the money he and other migrant workers saved during years of back-breaking labor to their families in Haiti. But as he drove down I-95 from Maryland to Miami, the Florida police had other plans. They permanently confiscated $8,500 from Beloizaire. His crime? Speeding.

A series of articles in the Orlando Sentinel brought cases similar to Beloizaire's to the attention of Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. On June 22, Chiles created a panel to investigate possible abuses of Florida civil-forfeiture laws.

Federal and state laws allow police to seize property they believe may have been involved in committing a crime. (See "U.S. vs. One Assortment of 89 Firearms," May 1990.) Police often assume that any black or Hispanic carrying a large amount of money must be a drug dealer; this combination of race and cash, it seems, can be sufficient to establish "probable cause."

Critics accuse police departments of using these laws to fatten their wallets at the expense of innocent citizens. For example, Volusia County, Florida, police have raised more then $8 million by stopping motorists for minor traffic violations and then confiscating their automobiles or cash. The Sentinel reports that three-fourths of these drivers are never charged, fewer than 6 percent even get traffic tickets, and a stunning 90 percent are black or Hispanic.

Florida is not alone. Since 1985, USA Today reports, federal lawmen have confiscated $2.4 billion from tens of thousands of citizens. Nearly all states have civil-forfeiture laws, and the Justice Department recently allocated $250,000 to lobby state legislatures for even harsher statutes.

Abuses of civil-forfeiture have sparked cries for reform. In Florida, the NAACP may soon file suit against Volusia County for its civil-forfeiture excesses. And in New Jersey, a new public-interest group, Forfeiture Endangers American Rights, recently convinced Assemblyman John S. Penn (R–Summerville) to introduce a bill that softens the state's forfeiture laws.