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Contraband Forfeiture Law Reformed: Limits “Policing for Profit”

Since the 1980s, there has been a nationwide practice that permits law enforcement officials to seize any property that they believe to have been acquired through illegal means. In the 1980s, the practice, more colloquially known as “policing for profit,” was used by police officers to seize and retain all property and money that was associated with criminal activity and would ensure that those who acquired the property and funds illegally would not be permitted to benefit from criminal conduct. The practice was largely aimed at drug and organized crime gangs. Whatever property and money was seized by the police would ultimately be used by law enforcement within their own coffers and for their own law enforcement programs. This practice is more formally known as Civil Asset Forfeiture or Forfeiture of Contraband.

Florida’s Forfeiture Reforms

Reform to the practice has begun slowly around the country and largely has been trail-blazed by the state of Florida. Two recent bills have centered around the reform of the current forfeiture system, which would dictate how and when property and money may be seized, the circumstances where the police may keep title to the property and funds, as well as how the property and funds must be utilized by law enforcement. Back in mid-2015, Senate Bill (SB) 1534 was introduced, which dictated how Florida law enforcement could spend the money that was seized as a forfeiture. In past practice, the only specific language governing the use of forfeited funds was that the funds must be used for law enforcement purposes.

Florida’s Senate Bill 1534: How to Use the Seized Proceeds

SB 1534 dictated that if enacted, state law enforcement officials would be required to only use any forfeiture funds to reimburse for the cost of storing seized property and for paying any fees, court costs, or liens on the forfeited property associated with the holding of this property. Whatever funds remained would be funneled into a Crimes Compensation Trust Fund, which helps victims pay for medical bills, lost wages, funeral costs, and any other fees associated with rebuilding their lives post-trauma. If the county or municipal law enforcement agencies were involved, they would have to deposit the forfeiture funds and property into a trust fund that would support crime and drug prevention, safe neighborhood programs, and the like.

Florida’s House Bill 883: Criminal Conviction Must Come Before Law Enforcement Ownership

Florida House Bill (HB) 883 further reforms the system in favor of those criminal defendants who believe that their property and funds were unreasonably seized by law enforcement. According to HB 883, before law enforcement will be permitted to take title of the property and funds seized that were associated with a criminal offense, the criminal defendant who originally owned the property must be convicted of the crime first. HB 883 states the state, at the time of the property forfeiture, only has provisional title, which is not final. For title to pass to law enforcement, the criminal defendant who is the original owner of the property must be prosecuted and convicted of the same offense that marks the property contraband.

For example, if the property is considered contraband because it was acquired as a result of a drug trafficking, if the criminal defendant is not convicted of drug trafficking, but is convicted of theft of other property, the contraband acquired through drug trafficking cannot be acquired by law enforcement; only the property that was related to the theft may be titled over to the law enforcement agency.

Another aspect of the new bill states that in the event that the owner of the property has not been found by the law enforcement agency within three months of the acquisition of the property, then the property is considered forfeited, unless the owner is found and the criminal charge related to the forfeited property is thrown out.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

If you have had property and/or money seized by law enforcement in connection to a crime that you have not been convicted of, it is important to speak with an experienced defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik. Contact Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

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