Florida boldly moves to require criminal charges before the government can seize your property

Taylor already wrote about the reinstatement of the federal civil asset forfeiture sharing program, which was bad news. The practice of law enforcement using the property of citizens who have not been convicted of a crime as a revenue source is a scourge which needs to be abolished in this country. Fortunately, much of the burden of making this needed change falls on the states and Florida has taken a step in the right direction. (Reason)

Some great news in asset forfeiture reform is coming out of Florida. S.B. 1044, approved by the legislature earlier in the month, was signed into law today by Gov. Rick Scott.

The big deal with this particular reform is that, in most cases, Florida police will actually have to arrest and charge a person with a crime before attempting to seize and keep their money and property under the state’s asset forfeiture laws. One of the major ways asset forfeiture gets abused is that it is frequently a “civil”, not criminal, process where police and prosecutors are able to take property without even charging somebody with a crime, let alone convicting them. This is how police are, for example, able to snatch cash from cars they’ve pulled over and claim they suspect the money was going to be used for drug trafficking without actually finding any drugs.

While not eliminating all seizure of property, the wording of the legislation sounds like it strikes the correct balance. Property may still be taken, but it would only occur in cases where an arrest was made, charges were filed, and the property would be described as “contraband.” Obviously, if you are stealing computers and get caught you don’t get to keep the computers. Similarly, illegal narcotics are already taken. (Though it’s a bit harder for the government to sell them at a profit.) But this law will end the practice of a family losing their home and their car because their kid turned out to be selling dime bags of weed. (Does anyone say “dime bags” anymore?)

One of the major problems with the entire idea of such programs is that the incentive to abuse the system is baked into the cake. Particularly in cases where cash is seized (allegedly for purposes of drug dealing in most cases) it’s far too easy to see that as an easy path to balancing the local budget so there’s not much incentive to make sure that the case was really “dirty” in the first place. Now if we can just get the IRS to stop freezing people’s bank accounts in cases where appeals are still pending we might be getting somewhere.

For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000.

The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.

“How can this happen?” Ms. Hinders said in a recent interview. “Who takes your money before they prove that you’ve done anything wrong with it?”

The federal government does.

That case dragged on for ages, basically destroying Mrs. Hinders’ livelihood. The IRS has long been out of control in cases such as these and most of the people who were in rough enough shape to attract their attention in the first place don’t have the resources to fight them in the courts for years on end. The sooner all of these practices are scaled back to the point where they only apply to actual criminals the better.

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