Today the Florida House of Representatives unanimously approved what the Institute for Justice describes as "a major overhaul of the state's civil forfeiture laws." The bill, which was unanimously approved by the state Senate on Friday, will become law if it is signed by Gov. Rick Scott.
The bill, S.B. 1044, would require police to make an arrest in most cases before seizing property allegedly tied to a crime and change the standard of proof for keeping the property from "clear and convincing evidence" to proof beyond a reasonable doubt—the standard that applies to criminal cases. S.B. 1044 also would increase the filing fee a law enforcement agency must pay to begin a forfeiture action, require the agency to pay a $1,500 bond that goes to the property owner if he prevails, make it easier for innocent property owners to recover legal fees, increase oversight of forfeitures by the courts, and require law enforcement agencies to report forfeitures so the state can keep track of them. "This is a major first step to ending civil forfeiture in Florida," says Justin Pearson, managing attorney at the Institute for Justice office in Florida.
Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), the primary sponsor of the bill, was inspired to propose reforms after hearing about abuses such as the 2012 airport seizure of €100,000 in cash from a Miami businessman, money that was kept by the Miami-Dade Police Department long after it became clear that he was not involved in criminal activity. "Under current law," Brandes recently told WFSU, the NPR station in Tallahassee, "government can seize assets without actually making an arrest of a person, and I think people are just generally shocked by that fact. How can the government take something from a Floridian—from a citizen—without charging them with a crime?"