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A Recent Supreme Court Case and What You Should Understand About Civil Forfeiture

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The Tampa Bay Times recently reported that the Temple Terrace Police Department seized almost $400,000 in cash and 18 pounds of marijuana from the hotel room of a murder victim on civil forfeiture grounds. The Temple Terrace Police Department had no further comment on the forfeiture case beyond stating that it acted under a search warrant.

Civil forfeiture is something that can happen to anyone who is facing criminal charges – even if you have been falsely accused of something you know you didn’t do.

What is Civil Forfeiture?

Civil forfeiture is a process that allows police officers to seize property from people when the officers suspect that the property may have been used or is going to be used in the perpetration of a criminal offense. In other words, cops can legally take your money or other belongings if they think you have done something illegal. Notably, civil forfeiture does not require that you have actually committed an offense.

What is the Recent Supreme Court Case and its Impact? 

The United States Supreme Court recently decided the case of Timbs v. Indiana in which it pondered whether the state of Indiana’s attempt to forfeit a defendant’s Land Rover was a violation of constitutional rights because the vehicle was worth four times the maximum statutory fine of $10,000 for the defendant’s felony dealing charge. In a February 2019 opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court determined that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the states under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

This case is a positive development for Florida criminal defendants as it means that the state cannot use state civil forfeiture laws to take an excessive amount of your belongings that is disproportionate to the crime you’ve been accused of. However, future cases will make more clear the standard of where exactly that line will be drawn.

 What is the Law Concerning Civil Forfeiture in Florida?

The statute governing civil forfeitures in Florida, codified at Sections 932.701-932.7062, has basic requirements that are more favorable than some other states. For example, a civil forfeiture here requires:

  • That the seizure be made in relation to an arrest
  • That the prosecution can prove that the seizure was lawful
  • That local police donate 25 percent of the seized amount to specified programs if it is over $15,000

Personal property (i.e. as money, jewelry, and clothing) may be seized more easily than real property (i.e. land and houses), which cannot typically be seized prior to the property owners being given notice and the opportunity to attend a preseizure adversarial preliminary hearing.

Do I Have to Be Found Guilty of a Crime in Order to Have Property Seized?

Unfortunately not. Many people do not realize that no conviction has to take place prior to authorities being allowed to forfeit the property that is allegedly related to a crime. In reality, this means that you can be found not guilty at trial or have the criminal charges against you dropped – and your property can still be successfully forfeited by authorities.

How Do Authorities Benefit From Seizing Property?

This is one of the primary reasons that civil forfeiture is generally viewed controversially. You may be surprised to learn that the law enforcement agency conducting the seizure can actually benefit directly from it. Your property can even be sold and the profits kept by those who arrested you.

According to the Institute for Justice, Florida authorities seized more than $117 million dollars in currency, real property and vehicles between 2009 and 2014. And the almost-$400,000 amount seized in the Times article reportedly constitutes a sum equal to about 4.5 percent of the Temple Terrace Police Department’s entire annual $8.7 million budget. With such substantial amounts of money, it becomes clear why critics argue that this direct benefit can incentivize the practice of civil forfeiture.

Has Your Property Been Seized in Connection With Criminal Charges?

If you have had property seized in relation to criminal charges that you are facing, obtaining legal help quickly can help protect your rights and secure your best chances for a favorable outcome for your property, and most importantly, your freedom. As a former prosecutor with extensive criminal experience on both sides of the legal system, Donald C. Barrett, P.A. is the Tampa criminal defense attorney you want on your side when facing any kind of criminal charge. Schedule a consultation today.

Resources:

ij.org/pfp-state-pages/pfp-florida/

leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=0900-0999/0932/0932.html

tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/police-find-nearly-400000-in-a-murder-victims-hotel-room-temple-terrace-wants-to-keep-it-20190201/

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