Concern raised in Florida over proposed policy regarding civil forfeiture

Fear policy would allow agencies to sidestep state laws restricting practice

By Jake Stofan - Tallahassee corespondent

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - There's concern in Florida after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would be expanding circumstances in which law enforcement agencies can use civil forfeiture.

There's a fear the proposed policy would allow law enforcement agencies to sidestep state laws restricting the practice.

Under Florida law, for police to seize assets from a person, with some exceptions, must first make an arrest. The proposed federal policy would allow police to seize assets without any evidence if they are willing to share the goods with the federal government.

Criminal defense attorney Richard Greenberg is concerned the new policy would create scenarios where people's assets could be taken in way not allowed under Florida law.

"An innocent owner can have their property seized, and then they have to fight to try and get that property back," Greenberg said.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes sponsored unanimously-approved legislation in 2016, which created the restrictions on civil forfeiture in Florida.

"This, I think, highlights property rights exist," Brandes said.

Now he fears Sessions' proposal would damage the state's control over the practice.

The 2016 law that requires an arrest before property can be seized. It also requires local agencies to begin reporting seizures to the state. The first report is due in October.

Orange County Sheriff and president of the Florida Sheriff's Association Jerry Demings said the proposed federal policy change includes a number of restrictions and safeguards, which he believes will prevent miss use of civil forfeitures.

"I don't see it as opening anything up. To the contrary, it really tightens the rules up," Demings said.

Still, Greenberg said any expansion to civil forfeiture could open the door to abuse.

"It's been called policing for profit, where law enforcement agencies are more concerned about seizing assets to fund their own operations than they are for public safety," Greenberg said.

Nearly half of the states have passed laws restricting civil forfeiture. Florida's law is not the most restrictive.

According to the Florida Sheriff's Association, local law enforcement would only be able to sidestep state law in cases where an agency is working directly with federal law enforcement.

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