Tallahassee, Fla.—Today, the Florida House of Representatives voted unanimously in favor of SB 1044, a major overhaul of the state’s civil forfeiture laws. The bill, which unanimously passed the State Senate on Friday, creates transparency requirements and a long list of new protections for property owners. The bill will head to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.
“This is a major first step to 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 provide valuable information which should lead to more 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 suspect it 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:
- Creating reporting and transparency requirements. Under current law, law enforcement agencies are not required to report forfeitures.
- Requiring law enforcement to make an arrest before seizing most property.
- 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.
- Increasing availability of attorneys’ fees awards to innocent property owners.
- Increasing oversight by courts during forfeiture proceedings.
- Increasing administrative oversight.
“The average amount of money that is seized in Florida is roughly $1,000,” Pearson explained. “Many innocent Floridians are forced to settle for far less than what was seized because it would cost more to pay an attorney to fight for the full amount. By increasing the costs on law enforcement to pursue forfeiture actions, this reform should lead to a dramatic reduction in these abusive practices regarding low-value forfeitures.”
This bill is the culmination of a two-year push for reform by state legislators and a nontraditional coalition of public interest groups, led by the Institute for Justice, the James Madison Institute and the ACLU.
Should Gov. Scott sign the legislation, Florida will join 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, 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.