Seizure of a Vehicle for Forfeiture
What happens with law enforcement officers seize your car, truck, SUV, van, motorcycle, or aircraft after alleging it was used as an instrumentality in the commission of a felony under state or federal law?
Florida law prohibits using a motor vehicle for transporting, carrying, or conveying any contraband article in, upon, or by means of any property, motor vehicle, or aircraft, under Section 932.702 of the Florida Statutes.
For this reason, law enforcement officers sometimes seize a motor vehicle for forfeiture claiming that it was unlawfully used to facilitate the “transportation, carriage, conveyance, concealment, receipt, possession, purchase, sale, barter, exchange, or giving away of any contraband article” as described in Section 932.702, Fla. Stat.
In only limited circumstances can a motor vehicle be subjected to forfeiture as an instrumentality in the commission of a felony, if the vehicle was merely used to transport the individual to a site of criminal activity. See Deckham v. State, 478 So. 2d 347, 348-49 (Fla. 1985).
This article explains why law enforcement officers with the Florida Highway Patrol, a local sheriff’s office, or a local police department, might seize a vehicle for forfeiture and the special rules that apply.
Attorneys for Vehicle Seizures in Florida
If your vehicle was seized for forfeiture by a local, county, state, or federal law enforcement officer, then contact Leslie Sammis, a civil asset forfeiture attorney in Tampa, FL, at the Sammis Law Firm.
When it comes to seizures for forfeitures, our attorneys fight to get the car, truck, SUV, van, motorcycle, or aircraft back quickly. We represent the registered owner, an innocent owner or spouse, or a lien holder.
Our main office is located in downtown Tampa, FL. We also have a second office located in New Port Richey, FL, across from the courthouse at the West Pasco Judicial Center.
We can help you get your vehicle back quickly in Tampa in Hillsborough County, St. Petersburg and Clearwater in Pasco County, New Port Richey and Dade City in Pasco County, Brooksville in Hernando County, and Bartow in Polk County, FL.
Vehicle Seizures under Florida’s Contraband Forfeiture Act
Under Section 932.701(2)(a) of the Florida Statutes, the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, a contraband article can include personal property that was used in the commission of a felony.
Florida law prohibits concealing or possessing any contraband article used as an instrumentality in the commission of any felony or violation of the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act pursuant to Section 932.702 of the Florida Statutes.
For this reason, any vessel, vehicle, or other personal property which has been or is being used in violation of any provision of Section 932.702, Fla. Stat., is subject to forfeiture. § 932.703(1)(a), Fla. Stat.
Throughout Florida, law enforcement officers seize for forfeiture vehicles allegedly used in a variety of crimes including drug trafficking, theft, prostitution, racing, and DUI.
Under Florida Statute 316.80(3), any conveyance or vehicle, fuel tank, related fuel, and other equipment described in subsection (1) shall be subject to seizure and forfeiture as provided by the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act.
Vehicles Used to Transport a Person to the Site of Criminal Activity
Under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, “[i]n any incident in which possession of any contraband article defined in s. 932.701(2)(a) constitutes a felony, the vessel, motor vehicle, . . . [or] other personal property . . . in or on which such contraband article is located at the time of seizure shall be contraband subject to forfeiture.”
Pursuant to § 932.703(4), Fla. Stat.,
“[i]t shall be presumed in the manner provided in s. 90.302(2) that the vessel, motor vehicle, . . . [or] other personal property . . . in which or on which such contraband article is located at the time of seizure is being used or was attempted or intended to be used in a manner to facilitate the transportation, carriage, conveyance, concealment, receipt, possession, purchase, sale, barter, exchange, or giving away of a contraband article defined in s. 932.701(2).”
The authorities might allege that the mere presence of the fraudulent illicit bulk currency, money orders, or cashier’s checks in the vehicle created a presumption that the vehicle was used or was attempted or intended to be used to transport, conceal, or possess a contraband article, which would warrant the forfeiture of the vehicle.
Vehicles Forfeitures are Common in Florida
The seizure and attempted forfeiture of vehicles are common by law enforcement officers, particularly in Hillsborough County or in the City of Tampa. In Hillsborough County forfeiture actions can be initiated by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office or the City of Tampa Police Department.
If it can be alleged that your property was used to transport drugs, such as a car, truck, semi-tractor, or another vehicle, the state or city can attempt to forfeit the property as punishment to deter crime and as a means of compensating the government entity for the crime.
Even if you are the owner of the property, and you were not involved in the crime, the property may still be forfeited under certain circumstances unless you assert your rights within strict time periods.
Local law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay Area of Florida may also attempt to hold your vehicle through an “investigative hold,” and require you to pay $25.00 a day in storage fees while the “investigative hold” is pending. You have certain rights under Florida Statute Section 713.78 for a statutory lien for towing and storage to receive notice.
You can also file a complaint in County Court where the vehicle is being held if you believe the “investigative hold” is improper under Florida law.
Upon filing the complaint, the owner or lienholder may have her vehicle released upon posting a cash or surety bond equal to the number of charges for towing and storage to ensure payment in the event his lawsuit does not prevail.
Upon posting the bond and payment of clerk fees, the clerk of the court shall issue a certificate notifying the lienor of the bond and directing the lienor to release the vehicle. When the vehicle is released, the owner should give a receipt to the company that towed or stored the vehicle listing any claims for damages to the vehicle.
When is a Vehicle Subject to Forfeiture in Florida?
Any vessel, vehicle, or other personal property which has been or is being used in violation of any provision of Section 932.702, Fla. Stat., is subject to forfeiture. § 932.703(1)(a), Fla. Stat.
The attorney for the agency that seized the vehicle might argue that the vehicle was used:
- as an instrumentality in the commission of felonies under state or federal law;
- in aiding and abetting in the commission of felonies under state or federal law;
- to conceal or possess any contraband article unlawfully;
- to conceal, possess, or use any contraband article as an instrumentality in the commission of or in aiding or abetting in the commission of any felony;
- to transport the individual to a site of criminal activity;
- to facilitate the transportation, carriage, conveyance, concealment, receipt, possession, purchase, sale, barter, exchange, or giving away of any contraband article.
Vehicles Seized by the Florida Highway Patrol
When it comes to the seizure of a vehicle, Policy Number 12.03.06(B) of FHP’s Policy Manual provides that the following must be considered in recommending forfeiture of vehicles, and apply to vehicles seized by the Florida Highway Patrol.
The trooper with the Florida Highway Patrol must first determine whether:
- the vehicle was used, attempted to be used, or intended to be used in violation of the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act;
- the vehicle’s dealer trade-in value is $5,000.00 or more
If the vehicle’s dealer trade-in value is less than $5,000.00, then the vehicle will not be approved for seizure unless extenuating circumstances exist (values from internet estimate sites are acceptable). Extenuating circumstances must be determined by contacting the Troop Legal Advisor, who will subsequently notify the appropriate Chief.
Generally, any vehicle that is inoperable and damaged to the extent of being considered “totaled” (i.e., the repairs will be more expensive than the value of the vehicle itself) will not be seized or considered for forfeiture.
FHP Seizures Based on Traffic-Related Felony Arrest
Regardless of the value of the vehicle, if the vehicle was driven by a person charged with any traffic-related felony that would create a threat to the public safety if the vehicle is not seized (e.g., felony DWLSR, permanent revocations, 3 DUI within 10 years, 4th or subsequent DUI, manslaughter, etc.), regardless of value.
Vehicles that meet the requirements for seizure pursuant to Florida DUI law will be processed for forfeiture regardless of value.
FHP Seizure Based on VIN, Title, or Odometer Fraud
The vehicle might be seized if there is vehicle identification number (VIN), title, or odometer fraud, as vehicles in such conditions are legally classified as “contraband” per the statutory definition, regardless of value. If there is a contemporaneous felony arrest in VIN, title, or odometer fraud cases, the vehicle may be seized for forfeiture.
If no contemporaneous felony arrest is made, then the vehicle may only be seized as evidence and the Office of General Counsel should be notified of the seizure. Where no contemporary felony arrest is made, vehicles seized for vehicle identification number (VIN), title, or odometer fraud should be seized as evidence only and the Troop Legal Advisor notified of the seizure (No forfeiture paperwork needs to be completed in these cases).
FHP troopers should be aware that a seizure warrant may be obtained prior to the seizure of any vehicle for vehicle identification number (VIN), title, or odometer fraud in advance of the seizure.
Towing a Seized Vehicle and Paying Fees and Costs
In accordance with towing and storage fee requirements of Section 323.001, Florida Statutes, all seized vehicles should be towed to a Vehicle Impound Facility (VIF) or another governmental agency’s secure storage facility when possible, to prevent storage costs and multiple towing fees.
In the event the vehicle is initially towed to a wrecker operator’s impound lot, a hold will be placed on the vehicle; however, the hold will not continue beyond five (5) working days (excluding holidays and weekends). Within that timeframe, the vehicle must be either moved to a VIF, no-fee government-owned secure storage facility or released to the owner if it is determined that forfeiture will not be pursued.
If the vehicle is moved to a designated no-fee storage facility within five (5) working days, the owner is responsible only for towing and storage fees incurred within the initial five (5) working day period (excluding holidays and weekends).
If the vehicle was initially towed to a private wrecker operator impound lot, and forfeiture is subsequently pursued, the district supervisor will ensure that the wrecker operator tows the vehicle to the designated VIF within 72 hours of the seizure.
The tow bill will be paid to the towing company in accordance with local customs and practices. If the property is awarded to FHP, the tow bill will be paid at the district level.
Vehicles will not be released to the owner from an FHP authorized storage facility, without proof of payment of the towing and storage fees or a court order provided from the Office of General Counsel. If a court orders the vehicle’s return, the owner does not have to pay any fees or costs.
If the forfeiture is not being pursued, the five (5) day hold will be released, and the seizing FHP trooper and appropriate Evidence/Property Custodian will be promptly informed that the property will be released.
If contact with the owner cannot be made by telephone, written notification of the release, by certified mail, return receipt requested, will be sent to the owner advising that the vehicle hold has been released, along with the location and telephone number of where the property is being stored. Rental vehicles should be released to the rental company. Leased vehicles will be returned to the leasing company after consultation with the Office of General Counsel.
The seizing FHP trooper will complete all appropriate reports and forms for submission to the Evidence/Property control function.
Following seizure and inventory of a vehicle, the Evidence/Property Custodian will make a good faith effort to release to the lawful owner or personal representative all personal property that is not retained as evidence or for forfeiture.
The seized vehicle will not be placed in service for any law enforcement purpose or Division use unless awarded to the Department at the conclusion of the forfeiture proceedings. The Evidence/Property Custodian will inspect and maintain the vehicle as to reasonably ensure that the vehicle remains in the same condition as when it was seized to minimize loss of value and to avoid Department liability for damages in the event the vehicle is returned to a Claimant.
After receiving written notification of the court order that a vehicle has been awarded to the Division, the appropriate Chief will prepare a memorandum to the Fleet and Property Management Section advising them as to whether the vehicle is to be used by the Division, or disposed of in accordance with Section 932.7055, Florida Statutes.
What Happens to the Vehicle after Forfeiture?
Any seized vehicle forfeited to the Department, whether or not it is used by the Department, will be disposed of in accordance with Section 932.7055, Florida Statutes.
The vehicle will be reported to the Division of State Fleet Management & Federal Property Assistance, Department of Management Services within thirty (30) days following the determination that the vehicle will not be used by the Department, or will no longer be used by the Department.
If the seized vehicle is awarded to the Department but will not be used by the agency, a “Request for Disposal of Mobile Equipment” (DMS Form MP-6401) will be completed by the HSMV Office of Automotive Records, Fixed Assets and Inventory Section in the Bureau of Accounting, who will then forward to the Division of State Fleet Management & Federal Property Assistance, Department of Management Services, for appropriate disposal of the vehicle.
If the seized vehicle is awarded to the Department and placed in service for agency use, the vehicle will be titled and registered appropriately by the HSMV Office of Automotive Records. At the end of the vehicle’s useful life, the Troop Office Operations Consultant will complete a “Request for Disposal of Mobile Equipment” (DMS Form MP-6401) and forward to the HSMV Office of Automotive Records, who will then forward to the Division of State Fleet Management & Federal Property Assistance, Department of Management Services, for appropriate disposal of the vehicle.
Office Operations Consultants (OOCs) will complete the FHP “Vehicle Turn-In” Form for each vehicle turned in for disposal. The original form will be maintained by the OOC for a minimum of two years.
SEIZED CURRENCY Pursuant to Chapters 705, 717, 893, and 932, Florida Statutes, seized currency will be treated as follows:
- The amount of currency seized will be be at least $5,000.00 in order to pay the cost of litigation, unless extenuating circumstances exist.
- When currency is discovered in a vehicle, the FHP trooper should attempt to question the occupants separately concerning the source of the money and to whom the money belongs. The FHP trooper must be mindful of all constitutional rights that may apply. If the owner is not present, the FHP trooper will immediately attempt to contact the owner to determine the source of the money.
- If currency is discovered, and no one claims it, the FHP trooper will seize the currency, regardless of the amount, which may be disposed of as unclaimed or abandoned property, unclaimed evidence, or which may be pursued through forfeiture. The FHP trooper must ensure that any person in possession of currency who disavows ownership of the currency and waives any claim to the currency, completes the Waiver of Claim to Assets and Waiver of Right to Notice of Seizure Form (HSMV 61076) or such denial is documented. A supervisor and Troop Legal Advisor must be contacted when currency is discovered under circumstances that may warrant forfeiture.
- In order to seek lawful forfeiture of currency, the FHP trooper must establish a nexus between the currency and felony criminal activity. It is recommended that if available, a Contraband Interdiction Unit (CIU) team FHP trooper assist the investigating FHP trooper who suspects the currency is involved in illegal drug activity. If the FHP trooper has probable cause to believe that the currency is contraband, the FHP trooper will seize the currency as outlined above.
- In all cases involving seized currency with criminal charges, the investigating FHP trooper will contact the appropriate State Attorney’s Office to determine whether the currency needs to be held as evidence or may be deposited.
- If no criminal charges are made, or the currency is considered unclaimed or abandoned property, no prior consultation with the State Attorney’s Office is necessary in order to deposit the currency into an FHP authorized account. In either case, the seizing FHP trooper will identify or make a record of the currency; to include at a minimum, noting the exact number of each denomination/dollar increments and photographing the money at the time of the seizure or by the end of the FHP trooper’s shift.
- In cases involving seized currency and criminal charges where the State Attorney’s Office requests the currency not be deposited, the currency will be secured inside the Evidence/Property room, in a safe or other secured container.
This article was last updated on Friday, May 28, 2021.