Civil Forfeiture: Florida's Embarrassing Failure to Protect Property Rights
By: Justin Pearson
Floridians consider property rights to be sacrosanct. Indeed, our state constitution extends further than most by expressly declaring the rights to “acquire, possess and protect property” as basic and inalienable. Unfortunately, our actions over the last three decades in one specific area have not lived up to this promise.
This area is civil forfeiture. Unlike criminal forfeiture, where the government keeps property after the owner is convicted of a crime, civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to transfer ownership of cash, cars, and other property to the government without ever charging or convicting anyone of any crime at all.
Worse still, Florida’s laws allow the law enforcement agency that seizes property to keep or sell it, incentivizing this abuse of power. Once the property is seized, the innocent owner is faced with the Hobbesian choice of deciding whether to pay a private attorney to pursue lengthy and expensive civil proceedings in the hope of possibly, eventually, regaining a portion of the innocent owner’s own property.
Civil forfeiture is so repulsive to our values that it has created an unusual coalition of opponents spanning the political spectrum. These groups include The James Madison Institute (JMI), the Institute for Justice (IJ), The Heritage Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Center for American Progress, FreedomWorks, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the Justice Fellowship, and the American Conservative Union Foundation. Yet, many Florida legislators continue to ignore all of them.
But it does not need to be this way. Over a dozen states have reformed their civil forfeiture laws over the past few years, with many more in the process of doing so, and four states now require a criminal conviction before any of your property can be forfeited.
It is not too late for Florida to do the same and regain its rightful place amongst those states where property rights are respected.
Justin Pearson is the Florida Office Managing Attorney at the Institute for Justice. The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty and provides pro bono representation for innocent victims of civil forfeiture around the nation.Column courtesy of Context Florida.
In Part 2, the author will address the rise of civil forfeiture, both nationally and in Florida. In Part 3, the author will discuss the reforms enacted in other states, which Florida should implement.
This article originally appeared in The James Madison Institute’s Winter 2016 Journal and is being reprinted with the permission of The James Madison Institute. Minor modifications have been made to separate the original article into three articles, remove the endnotes, and include updates.