Whether you see eye-to-eye with our new President’s views or not, everyone can agree that there is a shift in the direction our country is going. The Trump administration wants to eliminate Obamacare. Employment discrimination for LGBT people may soon be legal throughout the country.
Then there’s the criminal justice system. During the Obama administration, many reforms were made, including granting clemency to hundreds of drug offenders. Florida also made many reforms to our state’s criminal justice system in recent years, including some big moves in 2016 alone.
These actions may be viewed by the Trump administration as moving in the wrong direction. Will 2017 – and the next four years – see these reforms undone?
Before getting into that, let’s look at the changes our state made in 2016.
What Did Florida Do to Reform Criminal Justice?
Many of the reforms Florida made in the past year fall under two categories: civil forfeiture, and mandatory minimums. Both of these policies are closely tied to drug crimes and the “War on Drugs” that started back in the Nixon Administration.
Civil Asset Forfeiture
What is it? In short, civil asset forfeiture allows police to seize property and money from individuals who have been accused of a crime. Not convicted – or even charged – just accused.
Civil forfeiture was originally created to weaken and break up kingpin organizations by draining their resources, but has been abused throughout the War on Drugs and is a controversial police policy. Why? Because the seized money and property are not always given back to the individuals even if they ultimately beat their charges. Instead, it is used to give the police more resources. Worse, in some instances police have been known to focus on cases and individuals where more or bigger assets can be seized and ignore those with fewer assets, in essence engaging in “policing for profit.”
In 2016, Florida made big moves to limit the power of the police during forfeiture. New laws only allow police to seize most property after an individual has already been arrested.
When this property is seized, police will have to pay a $1,000 filing fee and put up a $1,500 bond. If the individual is found not guilty, the $1,500 will be returned. If cash is taken before an arrest is made, law enforcement will have to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the cash was linked to the crime. Individuals who have property taken from them now also have an easier time of getting that money back.
Additionally, the law requires that at least 25% of proceeds (if the agency collects over $15,000 in forfeitures a year) to go to drug treatment, education, or crime prevention initiatives. No more policing for profit.
Mandatory minimum sentences, along with civil asset forfeiture, are often considered two of the biggest injustices within our criminal justice system. Mandatory minimums exist at both the federal and state level, and are often viewed as too harsh for certain drug crimes.
These minimums were put in place when the “War on Drugs” began, and progressively got worse until the Obama administration. In 2014, Florida passed SB360 and HB99 to raise the amount of prescription drugs needed to qualify for Florida’s drug trafficking sentencing.
In 2016, many proposals were discussed regarding lowering the mandatory minimums for drug crimes across the board. These discussions have been in place throughout the Obama administration, but big steps were made with the passing of CS/SB 228.
This law eliminated aggravated assault from the list of crimes that qualify for mandatory minimum sentences. While an aggravated assault crime isn’t a drug crime on its own, it is often tied to drug crimes, and certainly is a step in the right direction.
Trump repeatedly labeled himself as the “law and order” candidate during his campaign, and promises to be a “law and order” president. In a recent conversation reported by The New Yorker, Trump listened to a sheriff who told him, “We’ve got a state senator in Texas that was talking about introducing legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.”
Trump’s response? “We’ll destroy his career.”
These are the same types of civil forfeiture reforms that Florida made in 2016. From his comments, it doesn’t seem that the president is a big fan of these reforms. Of course, the article later went on to describe Trump’s misunderstanding of civil forfeiture laws, despite his disapproval of reform, so perhaps there is still room for him to come around.
Beyond this, it’s unclear how much power the president will have over civil forfeiture laws, especially at the state level. However, that doesn’t mean his administration won’t try and enact policies that will evoke “law and order.” If you are accused of drug crimes and have to fight for your property, or fight against mandatory minimum sentences, the best way that you can fight for your rights and your future is to contact a lawyer immediately.
About the Author:
Attorney David W. Olson is the founder of the Law Offices of David W. Olson in West Palm Beach. He has been practicing criminal law and successfully representing clients throughout the State of Florida for over 30 years. Throughout his legal career, Mr. Olson has been honored numerous times for both his dedication and excellence in criminal law. He proudly holds the Martindale-Hubbell AV Rating, as well as being recognized as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer (2013), in the Nation’s Top One Percent of attorneys (2015), and as a 10 Best Member of the American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys (2015). He has even received commendations from members of congress and other public officials for the fantastic work that he’s done. Mr. Olson graduated from the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law in 1981 and has been a member of the Florida Bar since 1983.