Police in Florida May Be Able to Forfeit Valuable Property Based on Minimal Criminal Conduct

Florida, like other states, has a forfeiture law that allows the state to take ownership of people’s property when those people are suspected of committing certain crimes. The forfeiture laws are brutal because the state does not need to prove the suspect committed a crime to take that person’s property. In fact, the state does not even need to make an arrest or file charges, let alone win the criminal case, to take people’s property. Alternatively, the state can proceed to forfeit a person’s property even if the crime committed was minor, and the property has significant value. Additionally, the procedure effectively allows the state to take property and then force the owner of the property to prove the state acted improperly.

In a forfeiture case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was charged and convicted of two counts of registering a vehicle under a false name. This is a minor misdemeanor charge that almost never comes with jail time. However, because the police really liked the car she registered (a Cadillac Escalade), the state attempted to forfeit the vehicle. That is how forfeiture in Florida often works. The issue really is not enforcing the law or protecting the community or punishment so much as it is a person has property the state wants so the state is going to try to take it.

In this case, the defendant used a false name to buy and register the vehicle. The state took the vehicle and said it was contraband that could be forfeited under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act. The court ruled that the state could take and forfeit her vehicle without the case ever going to a jury.

The criminal defense lawyer appealed and raised several issues. Sadly, under Florida law, if a person buys a vehicle under a false name it is a crime, and the vehicle is contraband and subject to forfeiture by the state. Florida law specifically indicates the state can take your vehicle if you commit a minor misdemeanor while acquiring it.

Fortunately, what may have saved the defendant here was that the criminal defense attorney made an Eighth Amendment argument. The Eighth Amendment rarely comes into play in criminal cases because the courts so rarely find that anything the state does is cruel and unusual or excessive punishment. However, luckily for this defendant, there was a recent United States Supreme Court case (Timbs v. Indiana) which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines included forfeiture proceedings. In other words, a claimant can assert the Eighth Amendment if the state is trying to take property where the value is way out of proportion to the seriousness of the offense.  Therefore, the court is supposed to consider whether the value of the property the state seeks to forfeit is grossly disproportionate to the alleged criminal conduct. If so, the forfeiture should be denied.  Surely, in this case, the state should not be able to take a person’s expensive vehicle based on the commission of two minor misdemeanors. However, if that recent SCOTUS case was not decided, the state would have been able to do so. The state can still take valuable property for minor criminal conduct if a judge or jury decides it is ok.

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