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Why Florida’s Asset Forfeiture Reforms Don’t Go Far Enough

Alice Salles Comments

Why Florida’s Asset Forfeiture Reforms Don’t Go Far Enough

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If you only got your news from major publications such as the Huffington Post, you wouldn’t have learned that Senate Bill 1044, which was signed into law by Florida Governor Rick Scott this past Friday, does nothing to help Floridians protect their property from unlawful seizures from law enforcement agencies.

According to Tenth Amendment’s Mike Maharrey, the bill was a step in the right direction. But while the new law attempts to do the right thing, it doesn’t go far enough. It also fails to close the federal loophole that renders state reforms meaningless.

Florida According to SB 1044’s text, prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that property being targeted for seizure is linked to a crime before forfeiture is justified.

The bill also states that suspects must be formally prosecuted and convicted of a crime before asset forfeiture can be implemented. But due to the committee hearing process, Maharrey explains, the bill was somewhat diluted before the final text was sent to the governor’s desk.

Instead of applying the conviction requirements evenly, amendments added to the bill ended up trimming said requirements. Now, all that the law requires is an arrest before most assets are seized. To Maharrey, the fact the bill got a great deal of support from politicians from both sides of the aisles is proof that “reforms didn’t go as far as needed.”

But what the bill does get right can be easily neutralized by federal law.

The fact SB 1044 only restricts state agencies, Maharrey argues, gives local law enforcement officials and prosecutors a choice. Instead of taking on asset forfeiture by using their own resources, Florida can simply hand the case over to the federal government, rendering reforms passed into law toothless when it comes to protecting Floridians’ property from government abuse.

The Department of Justice has seized more than $4.5 billion from property owners across the country, which now sits in the agency’s civil asset forfeiture fund. According to the Institute for Justice, that represents a 4,700 percent increase over the last generation. When added to the Treasury Department’s civil asset forfeiture fund, the numbers are even more staggering. According to Cato Institute, the government took more than $5 billion from Americans in 2014 alone, making this the first time in history that the government has seized more money than burglars stole from private citizens.

According to Tenth Amendment’s Maharrey, the federal government is fighting hard to keep civil asset forfeiture laws in place because “the feds recognize paying state and local police agencies directly in cash for handling their enforcement would reveal their weakness.” Unless the federal government’s Equitable Sharing Program, which the Department of Justice has just launched once again, is slashed for good, state and local police will always have incentives to take part in the practice of seizing private property.

Until then, efforts like Florida’s must be celebrated, but not considered our only way out. State reforms will only be effective if they keep local agencies from having access to the stolen gifts presented by the federal government’s poorly written laws.

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