BRADENTON - A $10 bag of marijuana cost Jacquelyn Sweet nearly $1,000, with half of that earmarked for the Bradenton Police Department.
Sweet, arrested earlier this month on a misdemeanor possession charge, instantly and unwillingly joined a growing list of residents who have had their vehicles seized as part of a little-known city ordinance.
A 21-year-old waitress who attends St. Petersburg College, Sweet lost her car, handed over hundreds of dollars to a towing company and found out the hard way that local cities have the right to take cars for even the smallest of crimes.
"I'm like, 'what are you doing?' I was upset," recalled Sweet, who said the tow truck arrived minutes after the officer spotted the small bag of marijuana in her car after pulling her over for speeding.
"I couldn't imagine how I was going to get it back."
The Bradenton Police Department is among numerous agencies across Florida that consider the fine - usually $500 - a crime-fighting initiative that hits drug dealers and other crooks in the wallet.
But legal scholars say the fine amounts to state-sponsored extortion, and even the Florida Supreme Court said this summer it has "serious" constitutional concerns with the policy.
A pending case in an appellate court could doom the seizure policy across the state and force law enforcement agencies to return thousands of dollars collected in fines.
"They are money-making ordinances in the guise of fighting prostitution and other minor crimes," said Miami-based lawyer Ronald S. Guralnick, who is challenging the car seizures and fines in a class-action lawsuit. "There are huge sums of money involved."
Cities like Bradenton and Sarasota have used the procedure since at least 2000, targeting drug users and "johns" to seize hundreds of cars - - and raking in tens of thousands of dollars - each year.
The policy is based on city ordinances that give police the right to take a vehicle if it is used during crimes such as drug possession and prostitution. In Bradenton, authorities hauled in almost 800 vehicles and more than $390,000 between February 2000 and September 2003, according to forfeiture ledgers.
Authorities say taking someone's vehicle deprives a person - at least temporarily - from using it to commit another drug-related or vice crime.
But police suspended the policy in late 2003 while the Florida Supreme Court reviewed a misdemeanor case in Hollywood, where officials took a man's car after he tried to pick up a prostitute.
This past summer, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the appellate decision that had temporarily halted the seizures. Noting its concerns, though, the state's highest court asked the lower court to continue reviewing the police practice.
The fees are structured around city ordinances in Sarasota and Bradenton. There is no such ordinance in Sarasota and Manatee counties, nor in cities such as Venice and North Port.
"It's a civil seizure," said Whitney Coin, a Sarasota assistant city attorney. "They don't forfeit the car, we don't permanently hold it."
People can fight the seizure, although hearings are rare and reversals nearly nonexistent.
In Sarasota, there has been only one hearing since the ordinance was re-established. That challenge failed, as did one of three in Bradenton. The other two were later dropped.
Defense lawyer Mark Lipinski of Bradenton said one of the major problems with the law is that a person who contests the fine appears before a city-hired "special master," and not a judge.
Sweet, who was arrested Oct. 12, got her car back within hours of getting out of jail on $240 bail.
Sweet said her boyfriend and mother helped pay Bradenton's $500 fee. She ended up paying an additional $200 or so to the towing company.
Sweet said she is more annoyed than mad.
"It sounds like they will do anything to get money," she said.
Michael A. Scarcella and Anthony Cormier write for the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota.
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