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Civil Asset Forfeiture: What You Need to Know

By Hager & Schwartz, P.A.

January 26, 2017

What is Civil Asset Forfeiture?

Civil asset forfeiture, a tactic used by law enforcement to seize money and property from individuals under suspicion of being involved in a crime, has come under a great deal of scrutiny throughout Florida and the country.

Because it enables law enforcement to take cash and property from individuals without any actual evidence of wrongdoing – and because the process for getting said property back is inordinately convoluted – many have labeled the practice as unjust and have made efforts to limit its use by law enforcement.

Here are a few key points about civil asset forfeiture:

How Does Civil Asset Forfeiture Work?

The primary issue with civil asset forfeiture is that it separates property involved in a crime into the civil system, while individuals – if they are even ever charged or convicted – are processed through the criminal justice system. This is because civil asset forfeiture proceedings essentially charge the property itself with being involved in a crime. Unfortunately, it costs time and money for individuals to challenge the seizure, even if they are innocent, and after a certain period of time, the property will be automatically forfeited

How Civil Asset Forfeiture is Used

Civil asset forfeiture was implemented many years ago as a tool that allowed law enforcement to target major offenders and organized crime and take their ill-gotten gains achieved through crime. Civil forfeiture may have been well-intended when it was first developed, but it has become increasingly used by law enforcement to seize and keep assets from individuals, even if they are never prosecuted or convicted of a crime.

Florida Forfeiture Law

In July of 2016, Florida passed a law with overwhelming support to require law enforcement officers to arrest suspects before seizing most types of assets under civil asset forfeiture. Money can still be seized without an arrest, but it cannot be forfeited permanently unless it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be connected with a crime.

The legislation also requires officers to make more detailed reports, makes it easier for individuals to recover legal property, and sets a standard for law enforcement agencies that make more than 15 grand a year through civil asset forfeiture to give back at least a quarter of that to programs that benefit drug rehabilitation, education, or the prevention of crime. In the five years prior to the law being passed, local agencies in Florida forfeited nearly $70 million in assets, though that number is believed to be much more.

Civil asset forfeiture still occurs throughout the country, but efforts to raise awareness about its unjust use have led to laws like the one passed in Florida last year. Even with these laws, however, law enforcement can still seize assets in certain cases, and can still work around the limitations by working with Federal law enforcement and sharing revenue made through forfeitures.

If you have questions about civil asset forfeiture or have been charged with a crime in Fort Lauderdale or anywhere Florida, our criminal defense lawyers at Hager & Schwartz, P.A. are available 24/7 to take your call. Contact us for an immediate case review.