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What is Civil Asset Forfeiture?

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’ve probably heard a story having to do with civil asset forfeiture, or civil forfeiture for short. This isn’t something regularly discussed in criminal law cases, but it’s something that people need to be aware of, as it may have a serious impact on your life.

To put it simple, civil forfeiture is the practice which allows law enforcement to seize property from individuals when they suspect it may have been used or is going to be used in the perpetration of a criminal offense. This offense can be everything from distribution or transportation of drugs to sex offenses like prostitution to simple things like theft. However, depending on the state, officers may not even need to have clear and convincing evidence in order to seize the property, which is where the practice becomes controversial. In some instances, officers don’t have probable cause to place someone under arrest, but the standard of evidence is enough to seize property from someone, and people have had everything from sums of cash to vehicles to jewelry and other valuable property taken by law enforcement officers who claim that they suspect it is in some way connected to a criminal offense.

On one hand, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors argue that this is a necessary tool in order to de-incentivize criminals from carrying contraband on them. The logic for the argument is the ever-looming threat of losing the gains from committing a crime discourages committing the offense in the first place. Police agencies and prosecutors all across the country have voiced their support of it.

However, civil rights activists have long argued that civil forfeiture is a clear cut violation of your Fourth Amendment right to protection against unlawful search and seizure. They often argue that since someone has not been found guilty of the offense which they’re accused of, any seizure of property up until that point equates to nothing more than legalized theft. And their concerns have not been without merit; many of the news reports you’ve been hearing have often been cases where asset forfeiture has been abused.

These are especially common in states like Alabama, Missouri, and South Carolina, where the only thing officers need in order to initiate a seizure is simple “probable cause,” or just a reasonable suspicion that someone has committed a crime. In these instances, officers can seize property even if they don’t pursue criminal prosecution against the owner.

Should the owner wish to get their property back, they’re forced to go through a long process of appealing the seizure, which often requires them to prove to the law enforcement agency that their property wasn’t used in a criminal action, the complete opposite of the standard to prove one’s own criminal guilt or innocence. In some cases, by the time the hearing completes, the property has already been sold and the proceeds filtered into the coffers of the agency that seized it.

This is why abuse of civil forfeiture is such a hot-button issue: in most states which allow it, it is done to the direct benefit of the law enforcement agency conducting the seizure. The seized assets are often sold at forfeiture auctions, with the proceeds going right back into the budget of the police departments themselves. This only incentivizes the practice, as officers will continue to be employed by a department that has plenty of resources to operate in doing so.

Florida’s Forfeiture Laws

There is some good news for Florida residents: Florida’s asset forfeiture laws are some of the best in the country. Florida requires law enforcement to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the property has been used in a criminal offense before it can be seized by law enforcement. This means the burden of proving that something was used in an offense is on the seizing officer, not on the citizen to prove that it wasn’t. This is the strongest standard in the country for civil forfeiture, beyond the few states which require a criminal conviction before property can be seized.

However, there’s one downside to Florida’s laws: Florida takes part in equitable sharing, which means the proceeds for cases in which local law enforcement work with federal agencies to seize property are split between both the federal and state agencies. This often encourages federal agencies to get involved, knowing they too could profit from forfeiture.

Likewise, just because you’re a Florida resident doesn’t mean you’re granted this high standard of evidence everywhere you go. Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana have all received a rating of “3” or lower from the Institute for Justice, which are some of the lowest scores of any state in the country. The maximum on the scale is “9” and Florida’s stringent laws scored the state a “7.”

Have your assets been unjustly seized? Get help with your case from a Leesburg criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Dial (352) 503-4111 and let the Law Office of Jody L. Fisher fight for you.
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