Florida has some of the harshest marijuana laws in the US. Yet it's our second largest cash crop. I'm happy to see articles like this and hope that it will inspire change in our laws.SEIZURE LAW UNDER REVIEW
by Michael A. Scarcella, (Source:Bradenton Herald)
30 Oct 2006
Police's Policy Of Seizing Criminals' Cars Draws Criticism
A $10 bag of marijuana cost Jacquelyn Sweet nearly $1,000, with half of that earmarked for the Bradenton Police Department.
Sweet, arrested earlier this month on a misdemeanor possession charge, instantly and unwillingly joined a growing list of residents who have had their vehicles seized as part of a little-known city ordinance.
A 21-year-old waitress who attends St. Petersburg College, Sweet lost her car, handed over hundreds of dollars to a towing company and found out the hard way that local cities have the right to take cars for even the smallest of crimes.
"I'm like, what are you doing? I was upset," recalled Sweet, who said the tow truck arrived minutes after the officer spotted the small bag of marijuana in her car after pulling her over for speeding.
"I couldn't imagine how I was going to get it back."
The Bradenton Police Department is among numerous agencies across Florida that consider the fine -- usually $500 -- a crime-fighting initiative that hits drug dealers and other crooks in the wallet.
But legal scholars say the fine amounts to state-sponsored extortion, and even the Florida Supreme Court said this summer it has "serious" constitutional concerns with the policy.
A pending case in an appellate court could doom the seizure policy across the state and force law enforcement agencies to return thousands of dollars collected in fines.
"They are money-making ordinances in the guise of fighting prostitution and other minor crimes," said Miami-based attorney Ronald S. Guralnick, who is challenging the car seizures and fines in a class-action lawsuit. "There are huge sums of money involved."
Cities like Bradenton and Sarasota have used the procedure since at least 2000, targeting drug users and "johns" to seize hundreds of cars - -- and rake in tens of thousands of dollars -- each year.
The policy is based on city ordinances that give police the right to take a vehicle if it is used during crimes such as drug possession and prostitution. In Bradenton, authorities hauled in almost 800 vehicles and more than $390,000 between February 2000 and September 2003, according to forfeiture ledgers.
Authorities say taking someone's vehicle deprives a person -- at least temporarily -- from using it to commit another drug-related or vice crime.
But police suspended the policy in late 2003 while the Florida Supreme Court reviewed a misdemeanor case in Hollywood, where officials took a man's car after he tried to pick up a prostitute.
This past summer, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the appellate decision that had temporarily halted the seizures. Noting its concerns, though, the state's highest court asked the lower court to continue reviewing the police practice.
The fees are structured around city ordinances in Sarasota and Bradenton. There is no such ordinance in Sarasota and Manatee counties, nor in cities such as Venice and North Port.
"It's a civil seizure," said Whitney Coin, a Sarasota assistant city attorney. "They don't forfeit the car, we don't permanently hold it."
People can fight the seizure, although hearings are rare and reversals nearly nonexistent.
In Sarasota, there has been only one hearing since the ordinance was re-established. That challenge failed, as did one of three in Bradenton. The other two were later dropped.
Defense attorney Mark Lipinski of Bradenton said one of the major problems with the law is that a person who contests the fine appears before a city-hired "special master," and not a judge.
Since late September, when Bradenton resumed the fee, the policy has generated more than $20,000. The city has collected about half that amount, as some vehicle owners have not paid the $500 penalty.
In most cases, the cars were taken as part of prostitution or drug stings. But there are exceptions, including instances where the vehicle's owner apparently had nothing to do with a drug deal.
Bradenton police seized a 2005 Dodge Neon on Sept. 22 outside a reputed crack house in the 400 block of 10th Avenue East. The car's owner, Amber Green, was not driving it -- she let a friend borrow it - -- but police say the 26-year-old woman should have known her friend was using it to buy drugs.
Police said the driver dropped $10 worth of marijuana on the ground outside the house. The man got arrested for misdemeanor possession.
Green, upset about losing her car, met police to fight the seizure. She refused to sign seizure papers.
"They interrogated me when I didn't do anything wrong," said Green, who can't get her car because she doesn't have the money. The bank has put a hold on her Neon, and Green must rely on friends and family for rides.
Police have little sympathy.
"Maybe they need to rethink who they're loaning their car to," Bradenton Police Maj. William Tokajer said. "What I suggest they do is hit up their friend to pay the $500."
In a case this month, Bradenton police say they found a pipe with marijuana residue in a vehicle at Manatee High School during a school safety drill. The student's Toyota truck was seized, the $500 fine was paid and the vehicle was released.
Impound fees mount the longer a vehicle sits at a tow company yard. If a person pays $500 at the scene, the vehicle is not towed.
For towing companies, the business of picking up seizures isn't as lucrative as it sounds. Most of their business is for roadside assistance, with at least half of the calls each day to change a flat or jump-start a battery.
State laws say towing companies have to keep newer model cars ( 2004-2006 ) for 50 days. Anything older than that can be disposed of after 37 days.
In most cases, however, the seized vehicles are paid for within a few days, and the company might make $100 if the car is scrapped.
Sweet, who was arrested Oct. 12, got her car back within hours of getting out of jail on $240 bail.
Sweet said her boyfriend and mother helped pay Bradenton's $500 fee. She ended up paying an additional $200 or so to the towing company.
Sweet said she is more annoyed than mad.
"It sounds like they will do anything to get money," she said.
A LOOK AT HOW CAR SEIZURES WORK
The Bradenton Police Department's right to impound vehicles is rooted in City Ordinance 2583.
Police must have some evidence that a vehicle was used to buy or sell illegal drugs or has drugs in it, or was used to solicit a prostitute.
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Laws in Florida are waaaaay too strict and they would most likely all be changed if the supreme court cared for citizen's rights. The majority of our government is too corrupt and money-hungry to do anything that would make us happy. Fuckin communists i tells ya!
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