- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

Jan. 31

News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida, on policing for profit:

They say crime doesn’t pay - unless, that is, you are a law enforcement agency that profits from seizing the property of suspected criminals.

Civil asset forfeiture laws allow the government to take cash, cars, boats, homes and other property suspected of being involved in criminal activity. The emphasis is on “suspected,” because unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture does not require that the property owner even be charged with a crime to permanently lose his property.

Law enforcement agencies auction off the seized property and keep most or all of the proceeds for their own use, such as for purchasing equipment. This creates a perverse incentive for law enforcement to aggressively pursue civil forfeiture - what critics have dubbed “policing for profit” - which can lead to abuses of individuals’ property and due process rights.

Civil forfeiture grew in popularity with the War on Drugs, but has since expanded to encompass a variety of (alleged) crimes. According to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, Justice Department seizures went from $27 million in 1985 to $556 million in 1993 to nearly $4.2 billion in 2012. And since 2001, the federal government has seized $2.5 billion without either bringing a criminal action or issuing a warrant.

The practice is particularly popular at the state and local levels. In the 1990s, then-Volusia County Sheriff Bob Vogel gained national attention for his department’s aggressive use of property seizures along Interstate 95. His department seized $6.5 million in cash from cars - 90 percent of which were being driven by African-Americans or Hispanics. In three-fourths of the cases, no charges were filed.

The feds provide increased incentive for civil forfeiture through its “equitable sharing” program, in which Washington invites state law enforcement to turn seized assets over to the federal government; thus, the forfeiture is made under federal law. The federal government then offers to share up to 80 percent of the proceeds with cooperating state and local law enforcement.

Property owners can contest the seizures, but the government’s burden of proof often is lower than in criminal cases. For instance, the standard of evidence in Florida is “clear and convincing,” which is less than “beyond a reasonable doubt” employed in some states, but above “preponderance of the evidence” or “probable cause” used in others. Most states require property owners to prove their innocence.

That’s if the owners even sue to regain their property. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, many people can’t afford to hire a lawyer to contest the seizures, and for those who can the fight often costs more than the value of the property seized.

Thankfully, there is movement on civil forfeiture reform. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced the Justice Department would limit the “equitable sharing” program. The DOJ acknowledges that the new restrictions would have affected only about 3 percent of the value of all forfeitures over the last six years. Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and the move brings needed national attention to the issue.

In Florida, whose civil asset forfeiture law earned a “D” grade from the Institute of Justice, a property rights public-interest law firm, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has indicated he will pursue reform in the upcoming legislative session. He says he would like to see proceeds from seizures go to charity, city and county governments or the state’s general revenue funds so as to remove the incentive from law enforcement to seize property for its own gain. He also says he might seek to require a conviction before police can seize property.

Taking property that is used in the commission of a crime or is the fruit of such activity can be a legitimate exercise. But it must be done with streamlined due process, a high standard of evidence for government and without the incentives to tailor law enforcement activities toward boosting revenues.




Feb. 3

Miami Herald on lifeline for the middle class:

Despite the volley of partisan rhetoric hurled from Capitol Hill to the White House this week over President Obama’s proposed federal budget, it’s possible to discern the sounds of political harmony beneath the thunder.

It’s no surprise that Mr. Obama’s $4-trillion Fiscal Year 2016 budget was derided by leading Republicans as “dead on arrival,” and worse. We’ve come to expect that as politics as usual. The president’s reliance on large tax increases on corporations and the wealthy to finance efforts to help the middle class and create more jobs was a sure bet to be greeted with instant rejection.

But there’s something else - something more important, we hope - going on in the larger political discourse under way in the country as candidates gear up for the 2016 election.

The most striking evidence is that even Mitt Romney - he of the “47 percent” - made it a point before he bowed out of the upcoming race to promise that he would “end the scourge of poverty” if he ran. Similarly, Jeb Bush said in his non-declaration of a candidacy that, “While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America.”

In other words, income inequality, long a fundamental concern of Democrats that President Obama has seized as his current theme, is being recognized by some GOP leaders as a major national issue that deserves a solution.

And not a minute too soon. For the last 15 years or so, the middle-class share of households has continued to shrink as more Americans fall to the bottom. The Great Recession worsened the trend because the economy lost a lot of middle-income jobs, which have been replaced during the painfully slow recovery by lower-paying jobs.

Given that the middle class is where the great mass of voters are, it makes sense that politicians of all stripes would sooner or later wise up. No one should harbor any illusions about the political difficulty of implementing effective policies to deal with the problem, but agreeing that, in fact, there is a problem represents a hopeful moment that must not be wasted.

The best solution outlined in Mr. Obama’s 2016 federal blueprint is a plan to increase jobs by spending $478 billion on transportation and infrastructure over six years. This represents over a third more than the current spending rate and a 78-percent increase for mass transit. He proposed to pay for it in part by getting $238 billion from a one-time tax on repatriated corporate profits.

Obama also proposed a host of other programs to help lift incomes, from free community college to more generous childcare subsidies and education tax credits, expanded unemployment benefits and others. But spending on infrastructure should be a priority because it produces good jobs even as it provides a tangible public benefit. As President Ronald Reagan said, “The best social program is a productive job.”

Rep. Paul Ryan, D-Wisconsin, is among the GOP leaders in Congress who thinks there may be something in the president’s plan to work with, including the expansion of the earned-income credit to childless adults and a public-works bill that can generate jobs.

The sticking point comes in how the spending is paid for. Reaching agreement won’t be easy, but both sides must realize Americans are fed up with gridlock. If the nation’s leaders can agree on the goal - helping the middle class - they should surely be able to reach consensus on how to get there.




Feb. 2

Tampa (Florida) Tribune on bear problems:

Responding to an increasing number of human-bear conflicts, including some attacks, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plans to consider legalizing bear hunting at its Wednesday meeting in Jacksonville.

We’re not opposed to bear hunts being allowed if research shows it would not harm the state’s population, but to do so now as a response to residents’ concern about bears would be a travesty.

Hunting will do nothing to reduce the bear problem - unless the commission plans to allow hunting in subdivisions, something homeowners are unlikely to favor.

The hunting likely would take place in remote woodlands. The bear conflicts are occurring in subdivisions that have been built near wilderness areas. So bear hunts are not likely to protect the public. Indeed, they could drive more bears toward suburban areas where hunting does not occur.

New Jersey attempted to deal with bear complaints by reviving bear hunts. It achieved nothing. After five years of hunts, New Jersey bear numbers are down by 20 percent, but the number of nuisance complaints are still on the rise.

Moreover, Florida game biologists are still conducting research on bear numbers around the state. Commissioners should await the research’s completion before considering hunts. Allowing hunting prematurely could endanger the bears’ continued revival.

The commission deserves credit for pulling the Florida black bear back from the edge of extinction. Thirty years ago, the state probably had less than 500 bears; now there may be more than 3,000. But the bears are mostly concentrated in seven areas, and their health varies dramatically. For instance, a survey in 2002 found about 1,000 bears in the Ocala-St. Johns River area, but only 20 in the Chassahowitzka River area, where the bears could be quickly wiped out.

The high number of bear-human conflicts merit action (more than 6,000 complaints in each of the last three years). But commissioners should remember attacks remain rare, with the commission reporting three last year, including the serious mauling of a Seminole County woman in her garage. According to the game commission, 16 people have been injured by bears since 1976, and in seven of those cases individuals sought to interact with the bear.

Conflicts are on the rise primarily because subdivisions have been built in and near bear habitat, and the bears quickly learn to target trash cans, bird feeders and such for food. Some misguided residents even feed bears. The result? Bears lose their fear of humans and come to associate them with food, a dangerous situation for everyone in the vicinity.

On this front, game commission staff offers some sensible steps that would likely have immediate benefits:

Among them, expand availability of bear-resistant trash cans and work with local governments on ordinances that require their use. Local officials should never allow development in bear country without mandating the use of bear-proof trash cans.

Urge lawmakers to make laws prohibiting the feeding of wildlife more realistic. At present, illegally feeding wildlife is a second-degree misdemeanor, but prosecutors understandably can be reluctant to pursue a criminal charge. The staff proposes making the first offense noncriminal, with a $100 fine, something that would get people’s attention but not involve the criminal-justice system. A second offense would be a second-degree misdemeanor. The penalty would advance to a first-degree misdemeanor for a third offense and a third-degree felony for the fourth.

And notably, the staff proposes allowing homeowners to use paintball guns, bear spray and other non-lethal techniques to scare bears off their property. The commission would also work with local law enforcement officials on such “hazing” actions. Of course, the commission also would continue removing nuisance bears.

Such steps would be far more effective in reducing human-bear conflicts and making bears fear humans than allowing hunting in a faraway wilderness area.

There is nothing wrong with the commission considering a limited bear hunting season. But at this point, it diverts attention from more effective responses to the nuisance bear problem.



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