The Pinellas County sheriff has some explaining to do after deputies had a woman sign away her car to avoid a drug charge. This is just another inappropriate use of the state's forfeiture law.
Published February 25, 2004
The deputy made Tomeca Demps an offer she thought she couldn't refuse. Sign a paper giving the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office ownership of her car and she would not be charged with a felony drug offense. Although Demps had committed no crime, she feared arrest and signed the agreement. Deputies took her 1968 Buick Skylark, a vintage car with, they noted, a nice stereo system. Call it eBay justice.
Demps had second thoughts and hired a lawyer, and when Times reporter William R. Levesque started asking about the situation, the Sheriff's Office decided to return the car. "We don't stipulate seizure as a condition of not being arrested," said Marianne Pasha, spokesman for Sheriff Everett Rice.
But that is exactly what happened in this case, and Rice has some explaining to do. The agreement signed by Demps, a 31-year-old babysitter, stated that she would not be charged in a drug investigation in which her car had been seized after a pound of marijuana was found in it. Investigators determined that an acquaintance had put the marijuana there without Demps' knowledge.
Florida law is clear on when property used in a crime can be confiscated. The "seizing agency" must present convincing evidence that "the owner either knew, or should have known after a reasonable inquiry, that the property was being employed . . . in criminal activity." The Sheriff's Office admits that Demps knew nothing about the drugs in her car.
It's "cash-register justice," said veteran criminal defense attorney Denis de Vlaming. "It's like being offered the opportunity to buy your way out of trouble."
In this case, it looks as though the law was used to intimidate a naive person into giving up her property. While this was a particularly inappropriate use of the state's forfeiture law, it is hardly the only abuse. The Legislature has made it too easy for law enforcement officials to seize property even when the criminal case against the owner is minor or weak. That's why so many police officials in Tampa and elsewhere drive Lexuses and Lincoln Navigators. Given their budgetary constraints, police agencies find such property a tempting source of revenue, but the practice is corrupting.
Most Floridians would probably agree that airplanes, boats and cars used in serious criminal activities are fair game for forfeiture. Using the law to scare an innocent woman into giving up her Buick Skylark is obviously an inappropriate use of the law.