Criminal Cases and Civil Forfeiture: Adding More Consequences to Criminal Cases.
If you are charged with a felony in Florida, you are facing prison time, fines, loss of driving privileges, and a permanent criminal record. However, there is one other consequence that doesn’t immediately come to mind, civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture is the taking of assets by the state that are either proceeds of a crime or instrumentalities of a crime. Most often civil forfeitures occur in federal court or state court when there are instances of trafficking in large amounts of drugs or weapons. Examples of assets that may be taken are cash, boats, vehicles, bank accounts, homes and any other assets used as an instrumentality of a crime or are the proceeds of the crime.
The Florida Statutes that govern civil forfeiture require a state agency (usually a police department) to follow specific rules when seizing a vehicle for civil forfeiture. Within 5 days of the seizure a letter must be sent via certified mail to the property owners stating the vehicle has been seized for civil forfeiture and stating that the owner has 15 days to request an adversarial preliminary hearing. An adversarial preliminary hearing is an opportunity for the respondent (the person whose assets were taken) to argue the government does not have probably cause to seize the asset.
If the judge rules there is probable cause for the government to seize the asset, the government then has 45 days from the date of seizure to file a complaint. The respondent will then have 20 days to answer. A respondent has the right to a jury trial if their property is seized by a government agency. This trial will occur in the Civil Circuit Court and has no relationship to the criminal case. Your criminal case may be dropped or you may win in trial and the government can still move forward in your civil forfeiture case.
Recently municipalities in Palm Beach County have begun to use this process in many drug cases. For example, if you are pulled over for any valid reason and the police have a valid reason to search your vehicle, if they find any felony amount of drugs in the vehicle, your car can be seized for civil forfeiture. That means if the police legally find minimal amounts of cocaine for personal use in your vehicle, they may take your car! Florida courts have upheld this type of civil forfeiture.
If your property has been seized by a government agency in conjunction with a felony arrest, you need an experienced Palm Beach County criminal defense attorney to fight for your rights in both criminal and civil court.