Fla. could require arrest before property seized

Posted at 11:36 AM, Mar 01, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Police would have to charge people with a crime before they can seize their money, cars, homes or other property under bills that are now ready for votes on the House and Senate floors.

Sen. Jeff Brandes' bill was approved unanimously Monday by the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee, the last of three stops before it can be considered by the full chamber. A House version of the bill (HB 889) cleared its last committee stop last week.

The bill (SB 1044) is designed to prevent abuses of the current law, which doesn't require an arrest before property is seized, but rather law enforcement's belief that it was likely used in a crime. It was opposed by law enforcement officials until a compromise that removed language that would have also required a conviction before law agencies could keep seized property. Associations representing Florida sheriffs and police chiefs spoke in favor of the bill on Monday.

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, noted that the legislation has support from both liberals and conservative groups.

"When you hear the ACLU and the tea party group on the same side, it's either a good compromise or a sign of the apocalypse," Brandes said.

There has been a push for similar laws nationally that has united conservative and liberal groups and Democrats and Republicans. Last year at least 20 states considered bills seeking changes to civil asset forfeiture laws. New Mexico and Montana enacted laws that require convictions in order for law enforcement to keep seized property. A similar bill in Wyoming was vetoed by Gov. Matt Mead, who is a former U.S. attorney.

Brandes' bill would take other steps to protect property owners from abuses. Law enforcement agencies would have to pay a $1,000 court fee when seizing property and post a $1,500 bond that would be payable to the property owner if it's later determined property were improperly seized.

"I'm ecstatic. This is probably one of the most significant movements on civil asset forfeiture in a large state." Brandes said. "It's a very positive achievement that delivers a really good outcome for Florida."