Confiscations after crimes pay off for Boynton Beach

BOYNTON BEACH — When city police pulled over Jordan Ross Rodbell for speeding in March 2009, they found a crack pipe, five crack rocks, 30 oxycodone pills and 20 hydrocodone tablets, according to reports.

Rodbell, 29, later pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine and paraphernalia - charges on the pain pills were dropped - and was sentenced to pretrial intervention.

But he also lost his black 2009 BMW M3. Its Blue Book value: $67,820.

Under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, the city was able to seize the car. Rodbell got it back only after settling a $200 towing bill and paying the city $11,500.

In fact, between November 2008 and this summer, people in about 150 Boynton Beach cases forfeited cash, vehicles and even real estate, with a market value of nearly $750,000 .

Boynton Beach either sold them at auction or as surplus. Or in most cases, rather than go through the laborious and costly process of gaining ownership, it returned them to defendants, either for free or a cash settlement.

The cash-strapped city netted $228,992.

On top of that, the federal government has given the city cuts of property seized in joint federal-Boynton Beach cases. The city's take: $306,491.

"Seventy-five percent of the time, the car goes back to them," Boynton Beach detective Scott Harris said last month . "You look at the settlements, they're $250, $500, $1,000."

It's not that properties are just snatched, no questions asked. State laws require that all forfeitures have a hearing before a circuit court judge.

But Jim Green, lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, still thinks the statute could be unconstitutional, though his group has not yet challenged it in Florida.

"It's grossly disproportionate to the alleged wrongdoing," Green said, and could violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on "excessive fines."

Green also said that "typically, most law enforcement agencies use forfeiture as a revenue source."

Harris said that's not the case.

"It's not really making money off criminals. The way the thing was designed was to take criminals out of business. Obviously, the criminal justice system doesn't work the greatest because the guy who sells crack cocaine is on the streets the same day," Harris said.

But, he argued, take a street criminal's car and he's off the street, at least for a while.

Harris also said the program has lots of overhead, not the least of which is Harris' paperwork and labor. He said it costs $400 just to file for a seizure, plus whatever the city's attorneys charge.

And "the city can't turn around and take that money and utilize it any way they want," Harris said. He said cash goes into a closely scrutinized "forfeiture fund" and at least 15 percent must go to charity.

For Jordan Rodbell, losing his BMW might have been the least of it. He took pretrial intervention in June 2009. Two months later, he was picked up in the Orlando area on a charge of cocaine trafficking. This time, he was put on 14 years' probation. Records don't mention the car.

Other cases also are notable for the value of seized items - especially, in some cases, in relation to the crime.

•In December 2010, Boynton Beach police and Indian River County deputies busted a marijuana grow house south of Fellsmere and arrested Jerome Albanese, 48, of Boynton Beach. Authorities seized a 2001 Ford F250 pickup, a 19-foot speedboat and an 18-footer as well as two boat trailers and a horse trailer. Value: $50,000.
Albanese pleaded guilty this summer and is serving a two-year term at a federal prison near Miami. Everything was returned except the truck, which police use undercover.

•Brent Hawk, 47, in whose truck police allegedly found two crack rocks and a marijuana pipe, said the vehicle was critical to his landscaping business. He got it back after settling a $176 towing bill and paying the city $2,500. He later agreed to pretrial intervention.
•Authorities say Richard V. Murray, 53, fled officers at high speed through 2.5 miles of Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, even using oncoming lanes to pass cars. He would serve two days in jail. Police seized his blue 2005 Harley-Davidson Dyna Low Rider, worth about $12,000. He got it back for $1,000; the city even agreed to hold it until he could come up with the cash, which he did a month later.
•But after Jonathan Miceli, 28, was stopped in 2007 in what was his fourth DUI arrest, the city took his 2005 Ford F150, valued at $12,565. Police use it for undercover work. Miceli was sentenced to a year in prison and a $4,000 fine.
Then there's Platinum Showgirls. In the early morning hours of Halloween 2009, police conducted a raid on the adult nightclub following a four-month undercover investigation that led to charges of drug trafficking, underage drinking and prostitution.

The

city filed more than 50 felony and misdemeanor charges. At the same time, the state shut down the place, long a thorn in the side of a city trying to improve its image. Later, the club's owners forfeited $31,000.

"It often feels like it's a shakedown," said Michelle Suskauer, the club's attorney, who's the resident legal authority on WPTV-Channel 5 news.

"There's a line that seems to be crossed over and over again by cities," Suskauer said. She said she handled a case where another city tried to seize a vehicle whose owner was charged with leaving an accident with injuries.

Conceding few would have sympathy for her client, "the problem is the law doesn't stop with Platinum Showgirls," Suskauer said. "Not everybody owns an adult nightclub, but certainly everybody drives."


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Under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act (Florida Statute 932.701):

Law enforcement agencies may seize money, weapons, vehicles, boats, real estate or other property if it can be determined that the vehicle or other asset was used in connection with the illegal activity.
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