By Shira Rawlinson
Today, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed SB 1044 into law, which enacts a significant overhaul of the state’s civil forfeiture laws. The bill, which unanimously passed both the Florida Senate and House of Representatives, creates transparency requirements and a long list of new protections for property owners.
“This is a significant first step towards ending civil forfeiture in Florida,” said Florida Office Managing Attorney Justin Pearson of the Institute for Justice, which is leading the nationwide effort to end civil forfeiture. “Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on property rights in America and SB 1044 increases protections for innocent property owners in the Sunshine State. The transparency requirements will also provide valuable information that should lead to additional and needed reform in the future.”
Civil forfeiture laws currently allow law enforcement to seize and keep property even if the owner has never been convicted or charged with a crime. Under existing Florida law, cash, cars and other property can be seized and kept by police if police merely suspectit was used for a crime. The property owner must then either negotiate to get a small portion of their property back or pursue a lengthy and expensive process in court.
SB 1044 increases protections for Floridians by:
- Requiring law enforcement to make an arrest before seizing most property, including vehicles.
- Increasing the evidentiary standard to forfeit property from clear and convincing evidence to beyond a reasonable doubt—the same standard required for criminal convictions.
- Increasing the filing fee paid by law enforcement at the beginning of forfeiture actions to $1,000.
- Requiring law enforcement to pay a $1,500 bond at the beginning of forfeiture actions. The bond will automatically be paid to the property owner if the property owner prevails.
- Creating reporting and transparency requirements. Under current law, law enforcement agencies are not required to report forfeitures.
- Increasing availability of attorneys’ fees awards to innocent property owners.
- Increasing oversight by courts during forfeiture proceedings.
- Increasing administrative oversight.
“The vast majority of seizures in Florida are for amounts that are far less than the cost of hiring an attorney,” Pearson explained. “As a result, many innocent Floridians are forced to settle for a small fraction of what was seized because it would literally cost more than the amount that was seized to attempt to get it back. By increasing costs on law enforcement to pursue forfeiture actions, this reform limits law enforcement’s profit incentive for these abusive practices regarding low-value forfeitures.”
This bill is the culmination of a two-year push for reform by state legislators, led by Sen. Jeff Brandes, and a bipartisan coalition of public interest groups, led by the Institute for Justice, the James Madison Institute, the National Federation of Independent Business and the ACLU.
Gov. Scott signing SB 1044 means that Florida has joined a growing national movement to roll back civil forfeiture. In 2015, New Mexico enacted a landmark law that abolished civil forfeiture entirely. In 2014 and 2015, Minnesota, Nevada, Michigan, Minnesota and Washington, D.C., all passed crucial forfeiture reforms. IJ is working with lawmakers in states around the nation on forfeiture reforms during the 2016 legislative session. Unfortunately, despite the large, bipartisan consensus in favor of reform, the U.S. Department of Justice recently decided to resume its controversial “equitable sharing” program, whereby state and local authorities partner with the DOJ to pursue civil forfeitures against innocent property owners under lax federal law.