Luis Felipe Ospina Garrido used to have a business buying cellphones in Miami and selling them in Bogota. The business involved traveling with large amounts of cash, typically in euros, which he always declared as required by federal law. In 2012 customs agents in Miami seized €100,000 from Garrido, thinking it looked like drug money. After the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to pursue the case, the Miami-Dade Police Department decided to keep the cash based on an allegation that Garrido had committed bank fraud in Colombia by failing to declare the money as he was leaving. It took nine months for Garrido to get his money back, during which time his business went under and he was forced to lay off his employees.
WGCU, the PBS station in Fort Myers, reports that cases like Garrido's inspired a state legislator, Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), to introduce a bill that would reform Florida's forfeiture practices. Those practices earned a D+ in a recent report from the Institute for Justice.
Under Brandes' bill, police could seize someone's property only after arresting him and keep it only after obtaining a conviction. Under current law, by contrast, police can take and keep someone's property without even charging him with a crime. The change proposed by Brandes would effectively abolish civil forfeiture, allowing asset confiscation only in connection with criminal cases. He also wants police to keep systematic records of forfeitures. He told WGCU "most Floridians would be shocked to know that this is occurring in their state—that the law enforcement can actually do this."
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri complains that "it really hinders effective law enforcement to require a criminal conviction." Garrido's experience suggests that Florida law enforcement agencies need to be hindered. After Garrido sued the Miami police for damages and attorney's fees, an appeals court judge was dismayed to learn that the cops kept Garrido's cash even after it became clear, within days of the seizure, that it came from a legitimate source.
"How can you justify holding and taking someone's money when they have a legitimate business purpose for having the money?" the judge asked. "Maybe it was suspicious when it came in, but he declared it. At some point, you just cannot be an ostrich and hide your head in the sand."