TAMPA BAY, Florida -- A controversial procedure that allows Florida law enforcement to seize cars, cash, and other personal property during an arrest is under increasing scrutiny as some agencies are relying on it more and more to create revenue.
Civil forfeiture was designed to take tools such as guns and drug money away from serious criminals. Anything seized during a felony arrest can become the property of the arresting agency if the property owner doesn't challenge it. But officers routinely seize property as their agency's own even though warrants are seldom filed, and often, charges are never even filed against the property owner.
10 Investigates found many local law enforcement agencies are utilizing the practice more than ever, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars each in cash and cars they later sell at auction.
Spokesmen for local agencies say property is seized to prevent crime, yet several have policies of only taking property away if it has legitimate cash value to the agency. Cars that are very old or have large loans/liens on them are seldom seized.
It can be tough to tell exactly how much Tampa-area agencies are making through their forfeiture/seizure programs because proceeds usually fall under several different budget line items and multiple government programs. But according to the Department of Justice, one program helped law enforcement agencies seize $4.2 billion in property in 2012, with Florida one of the top states in the nation.
The Florida Highway Patrol seized more than 100 vehicles in roadside traffic stops over the past year, even though some of the allegations against the vehicles' drivers never resulted in charges. Nevertheless, owners of the vehicles were frequently left with the choice of paying FHP a cash settlement to get their property back, or going to court to fight to get it back.
That's the scenario Tampa's Antoinette Poskitt found herself in when FHP pulled her boyfriend over in Charlotte County for having a loose trailer hitch on the boat they were towing down to Key West. He was arrested as a habitual traffic offender, driving without a license multiple times.
Troopers asked if the 2011 Dodge Journey was paid off. It was, and had a Kelly Blue Book value of more than $18,000. Troopers decided to seize the car, even though Poskitt, the vehicle's owner, and another friend were in the car and could have driven it away.
"He's putting in paperwork to make the car belong to the State of Florida instead of you," one trooper told Poskitt, who had just purchased the car four months earlier using cash she received from a disability settlement.
"I finally get (my first new car)," Poskitt told 10 Investigates, "and four months later, police are taking it from me."
FHP also arrested Poskitt on misdemeanor charges of permitting an unauthorized person to drive her vehicle. But because forfeiture is a civil process, officers only have to accuse someone of a crime to seize property – disposition of the criminal case is irrelevant.
Poskitt said FHP offered her to return the vehicle if she paid them $9,000 - approximately half its value.
"They'd release the car and drop the whole thing," Poskitt said of the offer. "I don't have 9,000 dollars!"
Instead, she hired attorney Jason Sammis out of her own pocket, who says law enforcement agencies abuse the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act to pad their pockets.
"If (a driver) is taking the car to rob a bank (or) to commit a murder, there might be some justification," Sammis said of seizing vehicles to stop crime. "(But Poskitt) was taking it on vacation to Key West."
11/25 UPDATE: A Charlotte County judge ruled Tuesday that FHP did not have a right to seize Poskitt's car, ordering it returned. FHP can still appeal the decision. Poskitt's boyfriend still has not been charged with a felony.
Troopers: Only Seize Vehicles with Value
An FHP spokesman said the agency doesn't comment on active cases, but added they often return vehicles for free if the owner truly was innocent.
"No one that makes these (seizure) decisions makes a profit off of it," said FHP Sgt. Steve Gaskins. "My pay never is changed because we did or did not seize a car."
Yet FHP's policy makes it clear the tools used in commission of a felony should not be seized in typical circumstances if they aren't of value to the agency: "The sale of a vehicle after the lien has been paid should amount to at least $2,500 in order to justify the costs of litigation."
"Well, if you have a 15-year-old car that nearly doesn't run (and) there's no value in it," Gaskins said, "the legal cost of seeking forfeiture for something like that would not be worth the time spent."
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has a similar policy, only seizing vehicles if they're worth $1,000 or more after paying off all liens.
And both agencies make exceptions if a car with a large loan is very nice – FHP's policy specifies vehicles that "would be appropriate for use by FHP" – or if the driver of a worthless car was charged with specific serious traffic-related felonies.
But records show local law enforcement agencies make the majority of their seizure profits on drug-related felonies. That includes the possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana (less than an ounce), or a single gram of cocaine.
Drug-related arrests net Florida law enforcement agencies thousands of vehicles a year.
Critics Make Noise Across Country
Nationally, watchdog group Institute for Justice claims more than a billion dollars have been seized since 2002 in marijuana-related arrests. That includes more than a million dollars by the Polk County Sheriff's Office, whose sheriff, Grady Judd, was the most outspoken opponent of Florida's recent medicinal marijuana referendum.
Institute for Justice analyzed the nation's forfeiture laws in a recent report, Policing for Profit. The group gave Florida's forfeiture law a "D" grade, suggesting a strong incentive for law enforcement officers to target expensive property.
They also have been critical of varying penalties that don't depend on the crime, but on the property's value. Poskitt says FHP is offering a $9,000 buyback of her 2011 Dodge Journey, but criminals with more serious accusations get less-expensive options if they are arrested in less-expensive vehicles.
FHP tells 10 Investigates that's because it tries to be "cost-effective."
Another local police chief told 10 Investigates "you have to run your agency like a business."
Critics aren't surprised:
"It's not about stopping crime," Sammis, the attorney, said. "It's about making money."