TAMPA, Fla. — Federal agencies can seize cash and other property suspected to be involved in a crime — without ever charging the owner.
The controversial practice is called civil asset forfeiture.
Critics tell I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern, despite changes made to Florida law, more needs to be done so personal property isn’t padding the pockets of police.
The Institute for Justice is firing off lawsuits across the country in a bid to stop police from seizing innocent people’s property — and plans to push for change in Florida this upcoming legislative session.
Stacy Jones, who lives in Tampa, joined the Institute for Justice’s federal class action lawsuit filed against the Transportation Security Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration and United States of America in July, after agents seized her cash at a North Carolina airport.
Jones told the I-Team she and her husband fly often for gambling trips and “never thought twice about traveling with cash.”
But that changed earlier this year, when they were stopped at Wilmington International Airport.
Jones was traveling with more than $40,000 in cash. The friends she was visiting had given cash to buy her 2015 Maserati Ghibli back in Tampa. The rest of the money was intended for gambling, before her trip was cut short due to a death in the family.
There is no limit to the amount of cash a passenger can carry on a flight within the U.S.
Jones said it was when she was going through security in North Carolina that a TSA agent held her bag and asked her where the money came from. That agent then turned the bag over to a local law enforcement officer.
“He then called the gentleman who bought the car to confirm. He came back and told us our story wasn’t adding up, which was strange because it was a true story,” Jones said. “Then he called in some DEA agents who took us into an office and proceeded to question us and further search our bags.”
Neither Jones nor her husband were ever charged.
“No charges, no evidence, no nothing. It was just seized,” Jones said. “It just seems like it’s almost ‘pirates of the airport' you know, you go in with money in your bag and you just don’t know if someone’s going to take it.”
The class action lawsuit Jones joined states, “Once the DEA agents seized Stacy’s and her husband’s cash for civil forfeiture, the DEA agents told them they were free to leave and catch their flight. They flew back home to Tampa that same day.”
The DEA sent Jones a notice in July, outlining what she would have to do to try to get her money back.
The suit says Brown, who lives in Massachusetts, tried to fly with her father’s life savings of $82,373 to deposit it into a bank account like he wanted.
“I felt that my father and his father before him worked very hard for this money, and I’m merely taking it from one state to another to take care of my father,” Brown said.
The lawsuit says that every year, the DEA conducts hundreds to thousands of seizures of cash from travelers at U.S. airports.
The DEA referred the I-Team to the Department of Justice for questions about civil forfeiture. A spokesperson said the department has no comment on the lawsuit. Similarly, a TSA spokesperson told the I-Team they will not comment on pending litigation.
In November, six months after the feds seized her cash, Jones found out on her birthday that she will be getting all of it back.
“Probably the best birthday gift ever,” Jones said. “It was like I was backed into a corner and it just felt like a big relief.”
A letter from the DEA mentioned the decision the return the cash, but provided no further explanation as to why the money was seized in the first place.
“It’s $43,167 and I’m going to put a down payment on a house,” Jones said.
Jones said this isn’t where her story ends.
“I knew that I hadn’t done anything but it was like guilty until proven innocent,” Jones said. “The law needs to be changed.”
The class action lawsuit she joined is still moving forward, asking the court to order TSA and the DEA to stop seizing money at airports without probable cause.
“I told my lawyer even if it goes all the way to the Supreme Court, I’m in,” Jones said. “I’m going to be involved a much as I can to make sure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Civil forfeitures don’t just happen at airports.
The Institute for Justice’s newly released “Policing for Profit” report, a collection of state and federal forfeiture data, reveals Florida took in more revenue through forfeitures than any other state in 2018.
For years, Institute for Justice attorney Justin Pearson has been working to change Florida’s civil forfeiture laws.
“No one should lose their money or property without being convicted of a crime. And the Florida legislature tried to fix that, but Florida police have found a way around those reforms,” Pearson said.
In 2016, Florida lawmakers unanimously passed a bill requiring law enforcement to make an arrest before seizing most property. The new law also increased the standard of evidence to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Institute for Justice told the I-Team the change in state law still falls short because an attorney isn’t provided and a person doesn’t need to be charged or convicted of a crime to lose the property. Furthermore, Pearson identified what the nonprofit calls a loophole.
The Institute for Justice called the federal “equitable sharing” program a loophole because because it allows state and local law enforcement to partner with federal agencies on civil forfeitures under looser federal rules and keep a majority of what the property is worth.
Like in Jones’ case, the Institute for Justice said, under federal law, there is no need for the government to charge anyone with a crime and the burden of proof falls on the owner to prove their innocence.
“Florida police should be following Florida law and they should not be profiting from circumventing Florida law,” Pearson said.
At this point, no state has banned state and local law enforcement from participating in equitable sharing. However, some states have taken steps to remove the incentive for local law enforcement to directly benefit from what they seize through the equitable sharing program. Instead of anywhere from 75-100% of the proceeds going directly to law enforcement agencies, they go to the general fund.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was behind the 2016 bill that changed civil forfeiture rules.
“Some of the poster children for bad actors are some of the cities in the state of Florida,” Brandes said.
The lawmaker said more needs to be done this upcoming session to address equitable sharing.
“It absolutely is a loophole,” Brandes said. “We should ensure that have to follow the state law before they can jump to the federal law."
Brandes said he plans to look at reports coming out nationally on civil forfeitures and equitable sharing, and will work with groups that provide third-party accountability.
“We want to support our law enforcement, we want to make sure that they’re doing things the right way, but we also don’t want to put some incentive out there for them to do civil asset forfeiture that’s well above what any reasonable person would agree is appropriate,” Brandes said. “There shouldn’t be an incentive to seize assets only to fund pay raises and other things because, where does that end?”
State law requires any local law enforcement agency that takes in at least $15,000 within a fiscal year through the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act to donate at least 25% of forfeiture proceeds to community programs that handle drug treatment, drug abuse education, drug prevention, crime prevention, neighborhood safety, or a school resource officer program.
The I-Team reviewed state data and found, overall, agencies are falling short of that donation requirement.
In St. Petersburg, however, the police department has a history of donating more than what the state requires.
“I look at it as anything to help the kids, we want to give back to,” Chief Anthony Holloway said.
Last year, St. Pete Police gave $100,000 of the $119,000 it collected in forfeitures to dozens of local organizations. State records show other funds have gone to court costs for forfeiture cases and new equipment.
Holloway said the money can only be used on items not included in the budget.
“If we see a piece of equipment that wasn’t budgeted for that’s going to help us out with a criminal investigation, then we would buy that piece of equipment,” Holloway said.
Under state law, the agency seizing property goes before a judge before it is granted that property.
“Law enforcement should have to prove that there is a crime related to that money,” Holloway said. “I think when it’s used the right way, it’s a great tool.”
The Florida Police Chiefs Association declined an interview, but said on its website, “The FPCA opposes any legislation that abolishes or unreasonably restricts a law enforcement agency from implementing a properly managed civil asset forfeiture program.”