Research & Commentary: Florida Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

Published March 1, 2016

Florida lawmakers are considering two new proposals that would dramatically change Florida’s civil asset forfeiture laws. If passed, the proposals would require local and state law enforcement agencies to obtain a criminal conviction before the government can confiscate an individual’s cash or property. Civil asset forfeiture, also known as civil judicial forfeiture, is a controversial legal process through which law enforcement agencies take personal assets from individuals or groups merely suspected of a crime or illegal activity. 

The standards of proof required for seizure differ from state to state. In Florida, the standard of proof for forfeiture is the existence of “clear and convincing evidence” the property is connected with criminal activity. While this standard is more stringent than the standard used in many states, it is still far lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required for criminal convictions. Analysts at the nonpartisan Institute for Justice (IJ) have given the State of Florida’s civil asset forfeiture laws a grade of D+. IJ researchers say state and local law enforcement’s use of equitable sharing in Florida is the primary reason for the low grade. IJ ranked Florida’s civil asset forfeiture laws 48th worst in the country. 

Proponents of forfeiture argue it allows law enforcement agencies to use seized assets toward their enforcement efforts, transforming property illicitly gained by criminals into resources to be used for public benefit. Critics of the process note it gives law enforcement agencies economic incentives to seize property, corrupting them and penalizing innocent property owners. Florida’s seizure laws allow enforcement agencies to keep up to 85 percent of forfeited funds.

One of the main concerns with Florida’s civil asset forfeiture laws is the state’s widespread use of equitable sharing. Equitable sharing is an agreement between state and federal agencies to split proceeds from seizures. When equitable sharing is utilized, the lower federal standard is used, rather than the local state standard. According to the Institute for Justice, between 2000 and 2013, Florida agencies received a staggering “$412 million in [Department of Justice] equitable sharing proceeds, averaging more than $29 million each calendar year. Almost all of these proceeds resulted from joint task forces and investigations.” 

Another significant problem with Florida’s civil asset forfeiture laws is the lack of transparency.  Florida’s law enforcement agencies are not required to track or report to the public their forfeitures or expenditures from forfeiture funds. This makes researching potential forfeiture abuse difficult; groups seeking data on seizures often face a drawn-out process to acquire information that ought to be easily accessible. Currently, the seizure data only reflect forfeitures conducted by the state policing agency; local or county level data are unreported and unknown. 

Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, advocates eliminating forfeitures altogether except in cases of maritime and customs law. He also offers five recommendations for states not willing to halt all forfeitures: place seized revenues in neutral funds, increase the standard of proof for seizure to require “clear and convincing evidence” of a crime, move the burden of proof to the government, make the tracking of seized assets more transparent, and eliminate “equitable sharing” arrangements, which allow law enforcement agencies to evade state restrictions on the use of forfeited funds. 

Assets should be seized only for criminal reasons, and law enforcement should not have incentives to seize any more property than is necessary and justified. Florida legislators should strongly consider the new reforms and ensure property is only seized when a crime is committed. 

The following documents provide additional information about civil asset forfeiture.

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Proposed in Florida–commentary-florida-civil-asset-forfeiture-reform–commentary-florida-civil-asset-forfeiture-reform
Matt Hurley writes in The Heartlander about a new proposed law in Florida that would require local and state law enforcement agencies to obtain a criminal conviction before the government can confiscate an individual’s cash or property.

Civil Asset Forfeiture in Florida: Policies and Practices
The Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability reviews the current civil asset forfeiture policies and practices of Florida’s local law enforcement agencies related to the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act. 

Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Marian Williams, Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Scott Bullock argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” they write. 

Civil Asset Forfeiture, Equitable Sharing, and Policing for Profit in the United States
Jefferson E. Holcomb and Marian R. Williams, professors in the department of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University, and Tomislav V. Kovandzic, a professor in the University of Texas–Dallas School of Economic, Political, and Policy Studies, identify the effects of civil asset forfeiture reform on law enforcement activities. They write, “There is substantial anecdotal evidence that law enforcement [agencies] utilize a variety of tactics to generate the greatest revenue from their forfeiture operations,” a hypothesis their analysis of U.S. Department of Justice statistics confirms.  

Seize First, Question Later: The IRS and Civil Forfeiture
Institute for Justice researcher Dick M. Carpenter II and attorney Larry Salzman examine the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws by the Internal Revenue Service. “Federal civil forfeiture laws give the Internal Revenue Service the power to clean out bank accounts without charging their owners with any crime,” they write. 

Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know
This Heritage Foundation Factsheet outlines several important things people should know about civil asset forfeiture.  

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Goes Mainstream
Jordan Richardson of The Heritage Foundation discusses how the growing number of civil asset forfeiture abuses has drawn the attention of news media and suggests the increased attention may lead to real reform. 

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket
A. Barton Hinkle of the Reason Foundation examines the growing problems created by civil asset forfeiture and argues for repeal of such laws. 

Inequitable Justice: How Federal ‘Equitable Sharing’ Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain
The Institute for Justice examines the federal law enforcement practice known as equitable sharing, which enables and indeed encourages state and local police and prosecutors to circumvent the civil forfeiture laws of their states for financial gain. 


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