BRADENTON -- How far can the police go to separate suspected drug dealers from their money?
That is the essential question of a simmering dispute over this city's forfeiture program, which includes a little-known policy of asking people to sign away their cash and property without consulting an attorney or going before a judge.
The policy has been a financial boon for Bradenton, raising thousands of dollars each month which have paid for items ranging from assault rifles to a midnight basketball program. Last week, the city approved a $45,000 expenditure from the forfeiture fund to buy police gear.
At stake this week in circuit court is more than the $10,000 signed over by an Orlando man now suing Bradenton police. The outcome could decide not only the fate of Bradenton's policy, but could set a standard for how a handful of other agencies around Florida seize money during criminal investigations.
The centerpiece of the case is a Contraband Forfeiture Agreement, a form used by city detectives that allows a person to sign away money believed to be used during crimes.
Forfeitures are common for police agencies across Florida, seen as a way to put "dirty money" to good use for law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. Legal experts say all but a few agencies rely on the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, which calls for a court hearing to decide the fate of cash and property.
But Bradenton and a few other agencies in Florida use a voluntary agreement, which is signed by a suspect and bypasses the judicial system altogether. The money is funneled into a special police account, and the person, whether they are charged or not, officially gives up their right to get the money back.
Critics statewide say the process is dubious, pitting a police officer and a suspect in a negotiation, of sorts -- often during the tense moments of an arrest.
"What's to stop an officer from saying, 'Sign this and we'll make things easier for you?'" asked Miami attorney Ronald S. Guralnick, a forfeiture expert, in a recent interview.
Others, including attorneys for Delane Johnson, who is suing the department over a $10,000 forfeiture last July, say the program gives police the power to act as judge and jury. The case, which continues with a hearing Wednesday, is believed to be the first time that someone has challenged voluntary forfeiture agreements in Florida.
At least three other agencies -- Cocoa, Fort Pierce and Miami-Dade County -- use voluntary agreements similar to the one in Bradenton, although the documents and how they are used vary greatly.
The Miami-Dade County Police Department, among the largest agencies in the state, instituted a voluntary forfeiture policy last year, officials said. The department's one-page form "essentially tries to talk people out of signing it," said chief attorney Robert Knabe, and has boldface wording that highlights a person's right to have a hearing in court.
What's more, while Miami-Dade officers have the voluntary forms at their discretion, the agreement is rarely used -- most often in smaller drug cases of less than $1,000, Knabe said.
"It's hardly ever used," he said. "Maybe a handful of times a year."
That is in contrast to Bradenton's policy, where the bulk of the forfeiture cases involve cash and property between $50 and $5,000 -- but occasionally much higher.
In a pair of 2005 cases, police seized more than $100,000 through forfeiture agreements. And in the case at the center of the current legal wrangling, Bradenton officers arrested Johnson last July after finding a $10,000 wad in his pocket -- leading to an obscure criminal charge of not reporting that he was carrying such a large sum of money.
Prosecutors later dropped the charges, but Johnson signed a forfeiture agreement the night of his arrest, and officers seized his cash. Now Johnson wants it back, and his attorneys are mounting a challenge to the department's forfeiture process.
The hearing on Wednesday could validate the department's policy or vault the program into legal limbo -- possibly leading to a temporary halt of the agreements and a prolonged court fight with ramifications for the other agencies. It's not known how deep an impact the Johnson case will have on other agencies.
"I know that there are always attacks on (the agreements) throughout the state," said Fort Pierce Sgt. Chris Bender. "But to tell you the truth, we've never had one challenged as far as I know."
Said Knabe, however: "Sure, it could have an effect on waivers, but I'm certain that our policy is really well-defined ... and is done under strict parameters."
Likewise, Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski insists his department's forfeiture program is sound -- and embraced by a community tired of criminals prowling the streets.
"We will continue to make life miserable for drug dealers," Radzilowski said. "We're talking about drug dealers who lie and are the scourge of our neighborhoods."
That sentiment is backed by Mayor Wayne Poston, who said he is confident the current legal challenge will ultimately vindicate the department and its forfeiture program.
"Of course I'm comfortable with it," said Poston, also the city's police commissioner. "We're taking drug money off the streets -- I think most people would be for that."
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