In April of 2016, in a move lauded by many civil liberties groups and even some law enforcement agencies, Gov. Scott signed a new bill into law significantly reforming Florida’s civil forfeiture statute. The State of Florida is authorized to seize property connected to illegal activity through its civil forfeiture statute, Florida Statutes §§ 932.701-704. In Florida, prior to the new amendments, the State could seize property and money from individuals that were criminal suspects, i.e., the State could initiate a civil forfeiture proceeding against an individual without filing any criminal charges.
SB 1044 is a response to a common public opinion that forfeiture laws are an infringement of civil liberties and give law enforcement suspect financial incentives. Many critics of forfeiture laws argue that the state should first convict an individual of a crime before taking his property. The bill addresses this criticism and amends the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act by adding the requirement that, in most cases, police make an arrest to seize property. The Act as amended also increases the evidentiary standard of proof from “clear and convincing” to “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Law enforcement agencies must also meet new specific reporting requirements to track forfeitures. Further, agencies are also now liable for any damages caused to an individual in seizing his property. Florida law enforcement agencies typically donate a percentage of seized assets greater than $15,000 to predetermined programs. The new law increases this percentage from 15% to 25%.
Many procedural requirements and deadlines apply to forfeiture actions. Individuals should contact competent legal counsel immediately upon receiving a written notice of seizure and pending forfeiture. Individuals must avail themselves of their right to an adversarial preliminary hearing, especially if they are “innocent owners” under the law. Too often, property owners do not take any appropriate action within these strict time limitations, and the government takes the property unopposed.
Forfeitures have harsh economic consequences. If the State of Florida has filed criminal charges against you and/or initiated a civil forfeiture proceeding, call Alan Fowler, an experienced Florida Keys criminal defense attorney, for a consultation at 305.912.2516.