Home > civil liberties, criminal justice, law > Bal Harbour, Florida Police Department Epitomizes Perverse Use of Civil Asset Forfeiture

Bal Harbour, Florida Police Department Epitomizes Perverse Use of Civil Asset Forfeiture

Image via Albany Times Union

My latest piece over at Independent Voter Network looks at civil liberties violating civil asset forfeiture laws and the perverse incentives these laws create for police departments. Here’s a taste:

In a 2010 report titled Policing for Profit, the libertarian public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice* (IJ), documents the widespread and abusive manner in which civil asset forfeiture is used by law enforcement agencies. IJ looked at the forfeiture laws in each state, providing an overall grade based on the state’s forfeiture law and the extent of forfeiture use. The findings are stark: “Only three states—Maine, North Dakota and Vermont—receive a combined grade of B or higher. The other 47 states all receive Cs or Ds.” While “[m]ost state civil forfeiture laws provide little protection to property owners. Six states receive an F and 29 states receive a D for their laws alone. Lax federal laws earn the federal government a law grade of D-.”

Moreover, the burden of proof controlling “how much evidence the government must present at trial and how compelling that evidence must be in order to successfully claim property through civil asset forfeiture” for most states is extremely low. The IJ report reveals, “that upwards of 80 percent of forfeitures occur absent a prosecution” because “the standard of proof required to forfeit an individual’s property is lower than the standard required to prove that the individual was guilty of the criminal activity that supposedly justified the forfeiture in the first place” for a “vast majority of states and at the federal level.”

With regards to the Bal Harbour Police Department and the state of Florida, IJ gives Florida a D for their final grade. The standard of proof required by the Florida law is “clear and convincing evidence” that the property forfeited relates to criminal activity. While some states require a lower burden, such as probable cause and preponderance of the evidence, Florida’s burden still falls woefully short of the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard needed to secure a criminal conviction. Florida law enforcement also “receives 85 percent of the funds generated from civil forfeiture” and took in over $100 million in forfeiture just between the years 2001-2003.

As seen in the example of the Bal Harbour police department, “[t]his expansive use of civil forfeiture has not only benefitted law enforcement institutionally, it has also led to personal gain.”

The abuses of civil asset forfeiture laws, whether in Florida or throughout the nation, is easily explained by public choice. These laws essentially create perverse incentives for police departments to focus on supplementing their typically constrained budgets, allowing for the kind of fancy equipment, technology, vacations, and banquets in the Bal Harbour case. Not to mention police ignoring the kinds of violent crimes that will fail to cede anything of value for seizure and instead focusing on drug crimes, which are far more likely to yield seizable assets — thereby filling department coffers.

Check out the whole thing here.

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