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

A task force made up of Drug Enforcement Administration agents (DEA) and Miami-Dade Police Department Officers raided Miladis’ suburban Miami house and seized $15,000 worth cash they discovered in the closet.

They were responding to a tip by a confidential informant that Salgado was being laundered with drug money.

Salgado didn’t have any drug proceeds in the money she had hidden away. Salgado worked in a Miami duty-free outlet and had been saving for her daughter’s future. 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.

However, Florida continues to be a major practitioner of civil forfeiture despite strictening rules regarding the time that police may keep property seized. According to the Institute for Justice (a libertarian-leaning law firm of public interest), Florida raked in more revenue from forfeitures in 2018 than any other state. The federal government can help local and state police evade these restrictions, as did the Miami-Dade Police in Salgado’s case. They get a share of the profits in return for calling the federal authorities.

Justin Pearson is the Florida managing attorney for Institute for Justice. He says, “The federal government literally funds state and local police in order to avoid state law.” This is not how things should work.

It Was Really Wild West

State Sen. Jeff Brandes (R–St. Petersburg), the man who sponsored the legislation in 2016, said that Florida was “really the wild west” when it comes to asset forfeiture before the bill’s passage. You heard some amazing stories of police departments having 10 members and only three officers 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. These were not without their 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. Follow-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 three-year long investigation revealed that the task force had laundered $56million through police bank accounts and received $1.7 million as 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. This is the Herald I obtained confidential records proving that Bal Harbour officers later drew cash in the amounts of hundreds of thousands from these accounts. However, due to lax oversight no records were kept showing exactly where the money was.

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. Sunrise was the recipient of more forfeiture revenue than any other city in Palm Beach or Broward counties. 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 and convincing” from “beyond probable doubt.” This means that police can keep property seized by prosecutors who must also prove that the case is a criminal case. It also mandated an arrest prior to the seizing of property, but not cash. The attorney fees were raised to $2,000 in cases where there is no probable cause to seizure. There are new transparency requirements that law enforcement agencies must follow.

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. For example, in 2018, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office contributed forfeiture proceeds to Pensacola Habitat for Humanity and Christian Surfers. This is an evangelical group that seeks to promote the Gospel while breaking 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 abuses of forfeiture, the regulations also allow for agency flexibility.

Brandes says, “What we are finding is that because of the obstacles we have placed in state laws that require at least an arrest,” Brandes said. It’s “shopping.”

Federal authorities can “adopt” civil forfeiture cases from state or local governments and bring them to the federal level under the Justice Department’s equitable sharing program. Local police agencies that work with the federal government can keep as much as 80 percent of forfeiture revenues, and the remaining portion goes into an equitable sharing pool. It is then distributed to partner departments across the nation. This is because these cases follow federal guidelines and laws, not the state’s.

(On the plus side, participation in Equitable Sharing by the Justice Department does have strict controls over how revenues are used. That is why the Bal Harbour Police Department was in big trouble.

Reacting to public calls for reform in policing, the Barack Obama Administration limited federal law enforcement’s ability to adopt cases of asset forfeiture. 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. Although the Obama-era directive was not reinstated by the Joe Biden administration, it has been rescinded again. This is despite the long criminal justice platform of the Biden campaign, which contained the principle that no one should profit from our criminal justice system.

Organizations representing law enforcement believe asset forfeiture can be a powerful tool in disrupting organized crime such as drug trafficking by targeting illicit proceeds. Although the Florida Sheriff’s Association didn’t respond to our request for comment on the matter, the Florida Police Chiefs Association stated that it “opposes legislation that would abolish or restrict a law enforcement agency’s ability to implement a civil asset forfeiture program that is properly managed.”

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+. While the report noted Florida’s increased burden of proof, extra protections for innocent owners and a larger financial incentive for police to pursue assets, it did not give Florida a grade C.

According to the report, Florida had $4,500 as its highest dollar amount for forfeitures. The $1,500 bond and the increased filing fee required by law enforcement to seize property are likely the reasons for this. Pearson believes that the increased bond requirement and higher fee has deterred small-scale 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.

Forfeiture cases rarely go to trial. Police departments often make settlement agreements with property owners and agree to drop the case. However, they may return some, but not all, of the property.

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 for forfeiture that were initiated during fiscal year 2018 was resolved by settlements.

“They Want the 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 said that it was a “shakedown”. Because most people have bills, they can’t wait for two years before getting some of their money back. They accept the deal and, I’m confident, will not trust any law enforcement ever again.

WTSP, a local news station in Tampa, reported on the 2015 case of Antoinette Pokitt. Poskitt’s Dodge Journey 2011 was seized and remanded by Florida Highway Patrol. This happened after her boyfriend had been arrested for a traffic offense. 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.

Similar settlements can be found all over the United States. Wayne County, Michigan is known for seizing many cars per year and not filing any charges. 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. The Miami-Dade Police had to give back $20,000 of cash it had taken from Lizmixell Batista (a local Cheetah Gentlemen’s Club dancer) and Ras Cates, her husband. After police smelled marijuana, they stopped their vehicle and arrested them. A search of the vehicle turned up six weapons, several large containers of codeine cough medicine, as well as large amounts of 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 attorney for Jude Faccidomo said that he felt the “glimmer” on the cash seized was convincing evidence. Miami Herald“But it seems that the police department did not agree.”

Faccidomo believes that 2016’s law has not changed his work in any significant way. His opinion about the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act “is that it’s too wide interpreted,” he said. It is easy to abuse, and can often lead to law enforcement essentially legalizing theft.

Faccidomo states that the increased attorney fees do not “cover the fees for representation by any stretch” 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. Because they don’t have the truck to transport your truck, they will need it to be liquidated. They are looking for the cash.”

The Odor of Narcotics

The airport is one of the most lucrative places where Florida police can find cash forfeiture.

For 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 The agency took more than $189,000 in traveler money.

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 odor of drugs on their money and they gave untruthful answers about the origin of their money and why they were travelling to California.”

Curtis Simmons claimed that he was simply printing off his boarding passes when Broward County detectives surrounded him. Simmons claimed he was planning to purchase a Rolex watch and that he wanted $11,000 worth of cash. The officers then accused him of drug trafficking.

Simmons said, “It was 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.

Although it is legal for domestic travelers to carry large cash amounts, local and federal narcotics agents throughout the nation, including Florida, may use suspicion to seize money from travellers. This can lead to them having to sue in court. 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. After the Institute for Justice challenged its seizure, the DEA released the cash.

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. Jones stated that it is unacceptable for government officials to consider people criminals even though their actions are perfectly legal. This must stop.

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 reforms seem to have made asset forfeiture more efficient in general, some cases are still unusual. In March of last year, the Florida appels court found that Billy Ray Shirah should be in forfeiture court. As part of a drug warrant against his father’s son, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO), had taken Shirah’s Playstation 4 console and television with a 75 inch screen.

In the beginning, however, sheriff’s offices denied taking possession. However, in court, sheriff’s offices admitted to having taken the property. Once Shirah had Shirah’s TV and PS4. They had Shirah’s television and PS4.

According to transcripts of hearing, a BCSO representative told court that “the bottom line was, we had the property” and “we don’t anymore.”

“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. This mystery will likely not be solved until Florida increases its oversight over 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.”