Proposed federal law could change how police perform civil forfeitures

Published: Jul. 20, 2017 at 3:48 PM EDT
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By: Jake Stofan | Capitol News Service

July 20, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CNS) -- Under Florida law, police must first make an arrest in order to seize assets from a person, with some exceptions.

A proposed federal policy from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions would allow police to seize assets without any evidence - if they are willing to share the goods with the federal government.

Richard Greenberg, a local criminal defense attorney, is concerned the new policy would create scenarios where people’s assets could be taken in a way not allowed under Florida law.

"An innocent owner can have their property seized and then they have to fight to try and get that property back," Greenberg explained.

In 2016, State Senator Jeff Brandes sponsored a unanimously approved piece of legislation that created the restrictions on civil forfeiture in Florida. Now, he fears Session's proposal would damage the state's control over the practice.

The 2016 law requires an arrest before property can be seized. It also requires local agencies to begin reporting seizures to the state. The first report from that law is due in October.

Orange County Sheriff and president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association Jerry Demings says the proposed federal policy change includes a number of restrictions and safeguards, which he believes will prevent misuse of civil forfeitures.

“I don't see it as opening anything up. To the contrary, it really tightens the rules up,” Demings says.

Still, Greenberg says any expansion to civil forfeiture could open the door to abuse.

“It's been called 'policing for profit,' where law enforcement agencies are more concerned about seizing assets to fund their own operations than they are for public safety,” Greenberg said.

Nearly half of the states have passed laws restricting civil forfeiture, and Florida's law is not the most restrictive.

According to the Florida Sheriff's Association, local law enforcement would only be able to side-step the state law in cases where an agency is working directly with Federal Law Enforcement.