Understanding asset forfeiture in Florida criminal cases

Floridians who are being investigated for criminal activity should be aware of state and federal asset forfeiture laws, including recent reforms.

People who are under investigation for criminal activity in Florida often face significant consequences. If convicted, a person may have to pay fines or spend time incarcerated. Even without a conviction, an arrest can harm a person's ability to secure financing, housing and jobs. In addition, in certain criminal cases, the accused may also face the loss of personal property under asset forfeiture laws.

Local data shows that law enforcement authorities seize thousands of assets from people in Florida each year. From 2009 to 2014, over $68 million in assets were taken, according to the Florida Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. This makes it critical for Florida residents to be familiar with asset forfeiture and the relevant laws.

Grounds for forfeiture

A person may face civil or criminal asset forfeiture if he or she possesses property that is allegedly tied to illegal activity. This includes any property used during the commission of crimes, such as vehicles used to transport narcotics. It also includes proceeds from illicit activity, such as items purchased with the profits from white collar crimes.

The legal standards for each type of forfeiture are distinct. Criminal forfeiture can only be conducted if a person is convicted of a crime and if the property's connection to that crime is proven. Civil forfeiture, in contrast, is an action against the property, rather than its owner. Therefore, this type of seizure is not contingent upon a conviction, and the standards of proof are often lower.

Legislative changes

Last year, Florida lawmakers enacted significant changes to the state's civil asset forfeiture laws to extend greater protection to property owners. These changes include:

· Stipulating that non-monetary property can only be seized if a person has been arrested for a criminal offense. Previously, seizures could be made even in the absence of an arrest or formal charges.

· Requiring a court to review whether there was reasonable cause for the forfeiture within 10 days. Seized property must be released within five days if such cause is lacking.

· Demanding proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the property was involved in illegal activity. Before, the burden of proof was lower; authorities only had to show "clear and convincing evidence."

The legislation also discourages unmerited seizures by requiring authorities to pay a filing fee and put up a bond, which is paid to the owner of the property if a forfeiture is found to be unwarranted.

Federal proceedings

Asset forfeiture can be conducted under local or federal laws. If local authorities partnered with federal authorities during a case, they may opt to use federal asset forfeiture laws and therefore avoid the new standards established at the state level. Consequently, even with Florida's recent reforms, many people in the state might still face unwarranted cases of asset forfeiture.

Under federal laws, challenging asset seizure can be a complex and difficult process. As a result, anyone facing civil or criminal forfeiture should consider consulting with an attorney who has experience fighting these proceedings.