Sunshine Reforms


Thanks to an unusual provision of Florida's constitution, advocates of civil forfeiture and ballot access reforms could have the chance to make big changes in the Sunshine State's laws without first having to undergo the exhausting and expensive efforts usually necessary to get such initiatives on the ballot.

Every 20 years in Florida, a Constitution Revision Committee is formed which can recommend constitutional amendments to be voted on in the next general election. This year an ad hoc group of libertarian-inspired activists has managed to get the full commission to give its initial approval to reforming civil forfeiture law and ballot access requirements.

The ballot access proposal, which was supported by a bevy of third parties, including the Libertarians, Greens, and Socialists, won unanimous initial approval from the committee. If this proposal reaches the ballot and passes, third party or independent candidates would no longer need to circulate petitions to get on the ballot if they can pay the state qualifying fee, which is 6 percent of the officeholder's annual salary. Those who couldn't or wouldn't pay the fee could still get on the ballot by collecting the same number of signatures from registered voters required of Republican or Democratic candidates for that office. This would be quite a change for a state whose Supreme Court recently ruled that the state has an interest in "strengthening and encouraging major parties" when it upheld a state law that gives Republicans and Democrats a 50 percent rebate on campaign filing fees that minor candidates don't enjoy.

The proposed asset forfeiture amendment would make it more difficult for the government to seize money and other property from alleged criminals. The current standard, which requires the state to show by "clear and convincing evidence" that property was the proceeds of a criminal endeavor before seizing it, would be replaced with a "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard, which would be tougher for prosecutors to meet. Attorney General Robert Butterworth, a member of the committee, was opposed to the proposal, which passed by a 17-to-9 vote. Another committee member mentioned the laments he had heard privately from state and local law enforcement officials, bemoaning the hit their budgets might take if it became more difficult for them to seize property.

Some serious obstacles remain before either amendment reaches the ballot. Both proposals are now before a drafting committee, where they might be rewritten. And even if they survive the drafting committee, they must then go back to the full Constitution Revision Commission and pass with 22 out of 36 possible votes before being placed on Florida's ballot in November.