Florida’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Reforms Haven’t Stopped the Shakedowns

Miladis Salgado was raided by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Miami-Dade Police Department and officers from the Miami-Dade Police Department on May 15, 2015. They seized $15,000 cash and her closet.

Agents from the DEA were tipped off by a confidential informant to investigate whether Salgado was involved in laundering drug money.

Salgado did not have drug proceeds. However, the cash found in her closet wasn’t drugs. Salgado had been working at the Miami Airport duty-free shop and was saving money for her daughter. quinceañeraA 15th-year-old’s important birthday celebration. Salgado planned to hire a D.J. (and a photographer) for her banquet. Salgado was left without any savings so she cancelled the party.

Salgado took over two years to recover her money, even though a DEA officer admitted in a deposition there was no link between the cash and the alleged crime. In the meantime, Florida passed a law reforming the state’s civil asset forfeiture process, which allows law enforcement to seize property—cash, cars, houses—even when the owner isn’t convicted of a crime. In 2016, the proof required to forfeit property was increased. Most property may now be forfeited if an arrest is made.

Although the law regarding when property can be kept seized by police has been tightened, Florida is still a prolific practitioner of civil forfeiture. According to data compiled by the Institute for Justice, an independent public-interest law firm that advocates liberty and is libertarian leaning, Florida took in more income through civil forfeitures than any other State in 2018. Working with the federal government is a way for local police and the state police to evade new restrictions. This was exactly what the Miami-Dade officers did in Salgado’s instance. The feds get a portion of any proceeds in exchange for their assistance.

Justin Pearson, the managing attorney for Florida’s Institute for Justice office says that “the federal government literally pays state and local law-enforcers to bypass state laws.” This is not how things should work.

“It was Really Wild West”

State Sen. Jeff Brandes (R–St. Petersburg), the man who sponsored the law’s 2016 passage, said that Florida was “really the wild west” when it comes to asset forfeiture before this legislation. You heard some amazing stories of police departments having 10 officers, but only three members whose primary job was asset forfeiture.

Florida was like many other states in the time. It had very few protections to innocent property owners, and very little supervision of activities by police departments. It had its consequences.

In 2012, the Justice Department demanded that the police department in Bal Harbour, Florida—population 2,500—return $4 million in forfeited assets after audits showed the department had been misusing funds for lavish expenses, vehicles, payouts to snitches, and first-class travel. The Justice Department followed up Miami Herald investigation found the Bal Harbour police had been running a task force investigating money laundering by international drug cartels, in which task force members posed as money launderers, ostensibly to learn more about cartel networks. The task force allegedly laundered $56million for the drug cartels using undercover bank accounts of police officers. They also took $1.7million for their own commission. Bal Harbour police had no major drug seizures or arrests as a result. The task force also laundered $56 million through undercover police bank accounts. They took $1.7 million for themselves in commission. It was the Herald We obtained confidential documents showing that Bal Harbour officers took hundreds of thousands in cash out of those accounts later. Unfortunately, no record was kept because there wasn’t enough oversight.

Fort Lauderdale will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2014. Sun-Sentinel published a report about how police in the suburb of Sunrise, Florida—population 90,000 at the time—raked in millions by using well-paid snitches to lure cocaine buyers into town from around the country, meeting them at a local TGI Fridays, and seizing their cash. Sunrise, despite having a small police department, was able to take in greater forfeiture revenues than any other Palm Beach and Broward cities. It is the Sun-Sentinel found that a dozen members of the Sunrise Police Department’s vice squad had each made hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime pay through the stings.

With the 2016 reforms, the evidentiary requirement for forfeitures has been raised to “clear & convincing” from “beyond probable doubt.” This means that police can keep property seized by prosecutors who must also prove the case in criminal court. A law that required the arrest of all property before seizure was made, although not cash, also raised attorney fees to $2,000 if a court found no probable cause. It adopted transparency requirements to law enforcement agencies. Increased the filing fee required by the government to start forfeiture proceedings to $1,000 and mandated agencies to place a bond of $1,500 for owners who recover their property.

Florida’s latest law mandates that local police departments receive at least $15,000 annually via the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act. They must also donate 25 percent to community programs like drug prevention and youth sports.

 There are reasons A review of forfeiture data revealed that law enforcement has donated money to many different causes. The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office gave forfeiture revenue to Pensacola Habitat for Humanity and Christian Surfers in 2018. This evangelical group’s mission is to share the gospel while making waves. However, a Florida news station ABC7 conducted an examination of state data and found that “overall” agencies were not meeting the donation requirements.

“It Doesn’t Really Matter If It’s Profitable”

Although the rules are intended to curb the most extreme cases of forfeiture abuses, the regulations also allow for agency exemptions.

Brandes explains that they are now finding out that federal law is more popular than state law, mainly because of all the restrictions we placed on it. It’s “shopping.”

The Justice Department’s equitable share program allows federal authorities to “adopt” civil asset forfeiture cases in state or local jurisdictions and then pursue those cases at the federal level. Local police agencies that work with the federal government can keep as much as 80 percent of forfeiture revenues, and the remaining portion goes to the equitable share pool for distribution to partner departments across the nation. These cases are handled under federal laws and guidelines rather than state law.

(The upside to participating in Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program is the strict control of how revenues are used. That was the reason why the Bal Harbour Police Department got into trouble.

The Barack Obama administration restricted when federal law enforcement could take asset forfeiture cases in 2015 as a response to calls for reform. The memo was rescinded by the Donald Trump Administration in 2017. This administration claimed to be a staunch friend of law enforcement and opened the forfeiture spigot once again. Even though the Obama-era directive has been removed by Joe Biden’s administration, the platform contained a lengthy criminal justice plank that stated “no one should profiteer off our criminal justice systems.”

Organizations representing law enforcement believe asset forfeiture can be a powerful tool in disrupting organized crime such as drug trafficking by targeting illicit proceeds. While the Florida Sheriff’s Association has not responded to my request, it states on its website that they “oppose any legislation that eliminates or unreasonably restrains law enforcement agencies from implementing a properly-managed civil asset forfeiture programme.”

In its most recent national survey on asset forfeiture laws, the Institute for Justice awarded Florida the grade C. This is an increase over Florida’s 2015 grade of D+. Although the Florida law has a higher burden of proof than other states and provides additional protections to innocent owners, the Institute for Justice did not mention Florida’s large financial incentives that police have to continue pursuing assets.

According to the report, Florida had $4,500 as its highest dollar amount for forfeitures. It is most likely due to the 1 500 bond requirement and the higher filing fee that law enforcement uses in order to seize property. Pearson claims that the higher bond requirements and filing fees have discouraged petty seizures. Pearson states that there has been a significant drop in forfeitures below $2,500 because the police don’t have financial incentive to pursue these cases. It’s not about fighting crime. It doesn’t really matter if a crime is profitable if it’s being stopped.

Many forfeiture cases don’t go to trial. Instead, many police departments make settlements with property owners. They agree to drop the case, return some or all of the property, and sometimes even go to trial.

Negotiated settlements accounted for $18.9 million of the $47.8 million that Florida law enforcement seized, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s 2018–2019 asset forfeiture report. According to state data, nearly one third of the 4,429 cases of forfeiture that were initiated during fiscal year 2018 was resolved by settlements.

“They Want Money.”

This method of solving cases raises questions about how the departments decide which portion of a cash pile is a crime instrument and which part isn’t. After all, if the money isn’t the fruit of criminal activity, then the police have no reason to hold on to any of it—in which case there are less polite ways to describe what’s going on.

Pearson states, “It is just a shakedown.” Most people cannot afford to delay two years in order to receive a portion of their money, as they still have bills to pay. The deal is accepted and they are certain to never trust the law again.

WTSP in Tampa reported the story of Antoinette (a Tampa woman) who had her Dodge Journey seized by Florida Highway Patrol. Her boyfriend, who was being held for a traffic violation, was also arrested. The agency offered to return the vehicle and drop a misdemeanor charge against Poskitt for allowing an unauthorized person to drive it…for $9,000.

These settlements aren’t uncommon in the rest of America. Wayne County in Michigan has been known for seizing hundreds of vehicles per year, without charging their owners. To retrieve the car, owners were offered a $900 settlement (plus storage and towing) by the state attorney’s department.

The 2016 reforms have reduced the number of petty cash seizures in Florida, but cases that involve larger sums of money continue to be reported. Miami-Dade police had to hand over $20,000 worth of cash seized by Lizmixell Batista and Ras Cates in 2018. Batista was a Cheetah Gentlemen’s Club member. After police smelled marijuana, they stopped their vehicle and arrested them. The search revealed six firearms, large quantities of codeine cough syrup and cash.

The couple were not allowed to be searched by police, so the prosecution dropped all charges. Batista informed officers that the guns were legally owned. The department decided to forfeit the cash.

Jude Faccidomo, defense lawyer for Jude Faccidomo stated that “I believed the glitter on the sequest cash was persuasive evidence.” Miami Herald“But apparently, the police department disagreed.”

Faccidomo believes that 2016’s law has not changed his work in any significant way. He says, “I feel that the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act has been too broad interpreted.” It is easy to abuse, and can often lead to law enforcement essentially legalizing theft.

Faccidomo claims that increased fees don’t cover fees for representation. Law enforcement doesn’t have to worry about a serious bill if they make a frivolous seize.

And while Florida law now requires an arrest before most property can be forfeited, that protection doesn’t apply to cash—which is what most cops are really after anyway. Faccidomo said that the main interest of law enforcement and municipalities is liquid currency. They won’t take your pickup truck because they have a truck they want to liquidate. They are looking for the cash.”

The Odor of Narcotics

Airports are one place that Florida police found lucrative sources of forfeiture money.

2019 Vice reported that the Broward County Sheriff’s Office had a habit of seizing cash from travelers at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport based on the alleged odor of marijuana and suspicious activity, such as one-way tickets or short turnarounds to and from California cities. It was published three years before its release. Vice It was found that more than $189,000 had been taken from travellers by the agency.

According to the outlet, “All 16 complaints allege that cops approached people at random and said their belongings smelled of cannabis. They also claimed that they purchased plane tickets to California with a destination in California on the same or two days before. A K-9 from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office detected the narcotics odor on their money and they gave untruthful answers about the origin of their funds as well as the reason they were travelling to California.”

Curtis Simmons was one of the victims. He claimed he was just printing his boarding pass and was being surrounded by Broward County police officers. Simmons was accused of drug trafficking and took $11,000 in cash.

Simmons stated, “It’s embarrassing.” Vice. “It looked like they profiled my because they thought that [drug dealing]That was all a black man could do to have this much money.”

Vice found that just three people stopped by the task force had been arrested for drug possession the day they were stopped, and none had been charged with a drug-trafficking crime.

It’s legal to fly domestically carrying large sums of money. However, federal and local drug agents in Florida, as well as elsewhere in the United States, can use suspicion to seize traveler’s cash. They may have to go to court to recover it. Stacy Jones of Tampa, Florida, is currently suing the DEA/TSA in a class-action suit. The federal authorities seized $43,000 cash at an airport in North Carolina. The Institute for Justice challenged the seizure and the DEA gave the money back.

Jones stated in a press release that he worked very hard to earn this money, and intended to use the funds for a downpayment on a house. It is wrong for the government to treat people as criminals when they do something legal. “It must end.”

We Don’t Need It Anymore

According to the Institute for Justice, Florida’s forfeiture laws still have room for improvement. The Institute for Justice recommends that civil forfeiture be abolished entirely, just as it has done in three other states. The document suggests instead directing All forfeiture proceeds to non–law enforcement funds, to eliminate perverse profit incentives, and preventing state and local agencies from using the equitable sharing program to circumvent state law.

Although Florida’s asset forfeiture reforms have helped in the general improvement of the process, there are still some unusual cases. A Florida appeals court decided that Billy Ray Shirah, an individual named Billy Ray Shirah was entitled to his time in forfeiture court. As part of a drug warrant against his father’s son, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO), had obtained Shirah’s Playstation 4 console and television with a 75 inch screen.

Initial, the sheriff’s department denied that it had taken possession of the property. In court, however, the sheriff’s department admitted it had taken the property. Once Shirah had Shirah’s TV and PS4. It said that they were mislaid.

According to transcripts of hearings, a BCSO representative stated that they did possess the property and now don’t.

“What is the matter with it?” The judge asked.

“I don’t know.”

The question of where an elusive 75-inch TV could be is one that we are left wondering. These mystery will not be solved until Florida increases its oversight on asset forfeiture.

Miladis Salagado eventually received her money, even though her daughter was already old enough. Her long-running legal battle was refused by the government.

Pearson claims that although Miladis’ case has been resolved, she was not made whole. She did not do anything wrong but the government managed to manipulate the system in order to avoid any responsibility. And her daughter’s quinceañera will never happen.”