On a May day in 2015, a task force of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and Miami-Dade Police Department officers raided Miladis Salgado’s suburban Miami home and seized $15,000 in cash that they found in her closet.
The DEA agents were acting on a tip from a confidential informant that Salgado’s estranged husband was laundering drug money.
The cash in Salgado’s closet was not drug proceeds, however. It was money that Salgado, who worked at a duty-free store in the Miami airport, had been saving up for her daughter’s quinceañera, an important coming-of-age 15th birthday party. Salgado had been planning to book a banquet hall, D.J., and -photographer. Suddenly bereft of her savings, she had to cancel the party.
It took two years for Salgado to get her money back, even after a DEA agent admitted in a deposition that there was no connection between her cash and the alleged criminal activity. In the meantime, Florida passed a law reforming the state’s civil asset forfeiture process, which allows law enforcement to seize property—cash, cars, houses—even when the owner isn’t convicted of a crime. The 2016 law raised the burden of proof for forfeiting property and now requires at least an arrest before most property can be forfeited.
But despite tightening the rules for when police can keep seized property, Florida remains one of the most prolific practitioners of civil forfeiture. The Sunshine State took in more revenue through forfeitures than any other state in 2018, according to a survey by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm. Local and state police can evade the new restrictions by working with the federal government, just like the Miami-Dade police did in Salgado’s case. In return for calling in the feds, they get a cut of the proceeds.