WSVN — Forty-two years ago, Florida lawmakers passed a law intended to punish drug dealers and crooks by taking away their assets. In a few weeks, that law is being overhauled … after many people started to ask who has been policing the police. Craig Stevens takes a look in the special report “Cashing In?”
May 11th, 2015 was a quiet, sunny morning. Wilson Colorado’s 14-year-old daughter was at the kitchen table doing homework. He was at the computer filling out customer orders for his thriving business.
There was a knock at the front door.
Wilson Colorado, small business owner: “Once I opened the door, they come inside, they throw me in the floor. One of the guys put his gun to my head.”
It was chaotic. Wilson was confused.
Wilson Colorado: “They didn’t give me no answer, nothing like that.”
The feds raided Wilson’s house, looking for cash and drugs after a confidential informant claimed Wilson was crooked.
The DEA confiscated $200,000 in cash and checks, money that belonged to his business.
Wilson Colorado: “Is it possible that they take all your dreams away in a second?”
Wilson was not arrested and has never been charged with a crime. But the feds kept his money, and now he must sue them to get it back.
The Civil Asset Forfeiture law gives police the authority to take someone’s cash and assets if they suspect criminal activity.
Justin Pearson, Institute for Justice, Miami: “This is not a rare occurrence. It might even be a majority of the time where people have never been arrested in civil forfeiture, and they lose their money anyway.”
Justin Pearson with the Institute for Justice in Miami says a big problem with the law is that it allows police agencies to keep some of the money they seize.
Justin Pearson: “It’s this perverse incentive of being allowed to keep the money for themselves that causes the police to chase money instead of chasing criminals.”
And, Pearson says, it’s not chump change.
Justin Pearson: “Police are taking over $5 billion from Americans every year. That’s more than burglars take from Americans every year.”
We looked at the numbers. Twenty-five South Florida police agencies collected more than $6.1 million in 2015. The money paid for things like bicycles, an animal rescue facility and a police dog.
Former DEA Agent Robert Crispin has been on thousands of raids and says cops do their best to get it right.
Robert Crispin: “The government agent or the local law enforcement agent is only as good as the information he has. The agent has to be trained enough to show up on a situation, meet with people and find out if what they were told is actually really happening.”
After two years of haggling, lawmakers agreed to overhaul the law.
Justin Pearson: “Thankfully, the Florida legislature realized that reforms were needed, and they did these reforms in multiple ways.”
Now agencies are required to make an arrest before seizing most property, and cops are required to account for every penny they seize.
Pearson thinks the changes are a step in the right direction.
Justin Pearson: “But they won’t take care of all the problems. Frankly, civil forfeiture shouldn’t exist.”
As for Wilson, a year after his horrifying ordeal, he’s not giving up.
Wilson Colorado: “I have been working all my life since I come to this country, and I’m going to fight until the end.”
Wilson is suing the DEA to get his money back. He thinks agents were given a false tip by a disgruntled business associate, who was trying to get revenge on him.
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