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Can the Government Take your Property?

land-grab-afghanistanCiting civil forfeiture laws, it is not uncommon for police to take property after suspecting someone of being engaged in illegal activities.  Although this probably started as a very good way to help thwart criminal activity, there have been some very real issues related to how the policy is practiced.

In Florida, you don’t have to be found guilty of a crime in order to have your property seized for good. You don’t even need to be charged or arrested.  In fact, all the government needs is what’s known as “clear and convincing evidence” that the property was used in criminal activity, which is a much less standard than the proof beyond reasonable doubt that is required in a criminal court.  You could even be found not guilty in a court of law and still have to forfeit your property to the state. 

Civil forfeiture has been used quite extensively in the past several years by the police forces in Florida, often to the detriment of relatively law-abiding citizens, immigrants, the poor and those unable to fight back.  It is reported that over $38 million dollars is received by police agencies in Florida every year.  This means that assets of over $100 million are actually seized every year.

Unfortunately, this type of financial incentive can be too tempting to law enforcement agencies, which are in some cases underfunded and understaffed.  One story shows that police in Sunrise Florida conducted sting operations.  The police would sell cocaine and then arrest the purchasers.  They would then seize the buyer’s cars, property and cash.  In two years, the police in this small town made almost 6 million dollars from their sting operations.

In order to effect the sting operation, they would have to carry real cocaine in order to “sell” it. The undercover officers used in the sting operations netted 1.2 million in overtime over a several year time span.  One confidential informant, who is reported to be beautiful and brunette, was paid over $800,000 during that same time span.  The money seemed to flow in and out of the coffers with comparatively few guilty verdicts.

In another Florida example, a stretch of I-95 in Volusia County has become known as the “forfeiture corridor” for its abusive policing policies.  Officers personally raked in more than $6 Million, sometimes by stopping people travelling one or two miles over the speed limit, before the story came to light.

The issue then becomes two-fold:  Is this a valid police technique for managing criminal activity or is this a new version of policing for profit?  The second point is: is it really constitutionally correct for a police authority to take your own personal property without you even being charged or convicted of an actual crime?

Following multiple lawsuits and negative publicity, the legislature in Minnesota has passed new laws around civil forfeiture, which provides more protection for those not yet convicted of a crime.  No longer can police seize property simply because the person is suspected of wrong doing.  The person will have to be convicted in a court of law or plead guilty in a court of law in order for the police to seize property.  The legislature in Wisconsin is currently drafting similar laws.

Some legal scholars believe that, given enough time and enough published abuses, citizens may push for Minnesota’s new standard to become the new standard in most states.  Florida is one of those states that are being watched closely.