98-03: Florida State Forfeitures - Warrant Required To Seize Vehicles
Case: White v. State, (---FLW---, ---So.2d--- (Fla. 1998))

Date: February 26, 1998

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that unless exigent circumstances exist, the seizure of a motor vehicle for forfeiture under Florida state law must be by warrant or seizure order.

FACTS: Tyvessel Tyvorus White was arrested at his place of employment in Bay County on charges unrelated to the facts giving rise to the seizure of his car. After White was taken into custody and his car keys secured, White's car was seized for purposes of a state forfeiture from the parking lot of White's employment. The basis of the seizure was the officer's belief the car had been used several months earlier to deliver drugs, making it forfeitable under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act. In keeping with the Act and then-current law, no warrant or court order was utilized to seize the car. During an inventory search, two pieces of crack cocaine were found in the car's ashtray, and White was charged with cocaine possession. A motion to suppress the cocaine was denied, White was convicted, and the case was appealed. The First DCA upheld the conviction (White v. State, 680 So.2d 550) (Fla. 1st DCA 1996). The Supreme Court reversed.

HOLDING: The Supreme Court noted that there was no independent basis to believe White's car contained drugs when it was seized, so there was no "exigent circumstance" constituting a known exception to the warrant requirement. The Court noted this case involved a seizure based on acts that occurred previous to the time of seizure and was not based on a suspicion that the car contained drugs at the time it was seized.
{Justice Wells strongly dissented, with J. Overton concurring. Wells complained the Supreme Court was rewriting a 23-year old statute, reversing years of court precedent, places Florida in the minority of federal and state jurisdictions, and puts Florida state law at odds with federal standards in Florida because the 11th Federal Circuit allows warrantless seizures for federal forfeitures.}

Note: Florida's Supreme Court continues to restrict Florida's forfeiture law. Of concern is where the "warrant to seize" requirement ends. The underlying philosophy of this opinion may be extended to the warrantless seizure of any personal property where the seizure is not justified by exigent circumstances. Special agents and other Florida law enforcement officers contemplating the seizure of property for forfeiture under Florida state law should carefully coordinate their efforts with their legal advisors.

Michael Ramage
General Counsel
Florida Department of Law Enforcement

For Further Information Contact:
Steve Brady
Regional Legal Advisor
Florida Department of Law Enforcement
Orlando Regional Operations Center