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What $57M In Federal Asset Seizures Might Say About South Florida

In the last year, over $57 million in illegal assets relating to federal cases in South Florida have been seized by the United States government, according to data provided by the U.S. Attorney’s office in South Florida.

$57,321,390.40 to be exact.

It’s a common perception that Miami and the rest of South Florida was built on the drug money circulating from South America up through the rest of the United States. Films such as Scarface and documentaries like Cocaine Cowboys depict a world of fortunes built upon castles of pure uncut Columbian and protected by scary men with quick shooting automatic weapons.

Part of the city’s overall brand is the lure of the illicit, but actually seeing numbers on the cash and assets broken down, is pretty astonishing: 

Administrative Forfeitures

Number of Assets: 661

Asset Value: $25,597,476.01

Judicial Forfeitures [Civil and Criminal]

Number of Assets: 235

Asset Value: $31,723,914.39

In terms of seizures, as with the number of indictments, number of trials, number of defendants, etc., the Southern District of Florida (our district), which spans from Key West to Fort Pierce, is typically among the national leaders in forfeitures in general.

One of the federal agencies that regularly use forfeiture as a crime-stopping tool is the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Jim Marshall, public affairs specialist for the FBI in Miami, said that “to accomplish its goals, the bureau provides training, resources and operational assistance to field offices and entities at FBI headquarters to ensure that asset forfeiture is incorporated into as many investigations as possible, where appropriate and allowed by law, to deter criminal activity and dismantle criminal enterprises.”

It may seem obvious, but the FBI sees taking away a criminal’s stuff as a top priority, as well as one of the most effective tools in crime fighting.

RELATED: How Drugs May Be Helping Miami's Real Estate Rebound

According to criminal defense attorney Lana Cucchiella of Grey & Mourin in Miami, the “things that can be forfeited other than cash: cars, real property (house/business/etc.), jewelry and firearms. Anything in sufficient nexus to alleged criminal activities can be seized.”

One very interesting note that Cucchiella adds is that these numbers do not include drugs. Indeed, "since you have no right to possess them, the government need not initiate forfeiture proceedings to keep them." But that hits the criminal's bottom line regardless, because when, "drugs are seized, their owner loses the money he invested to obtain them."

Brian Bandell’s fascinating recent article in the South Florida Business Journal highlighted the potential for the condo market to be exploited by illegal money flowing into the city. Indeed the numbers for cash are much lower than overall assets, suggesting that maybe crooks are stashing cash somewhere and the condo market seems as reasonable a place as any.


Judicial Forfeitures (Including Number Of Forfeitures And Dollar Amount)

Miami — 17—  $617,668.70

West Palm Beach — 3 — $66,205

Ft. Lauderdale — 8 —  $484,555

Homestead — 3 —  $235,538

Total — 31—  $1,403,966.70

If you compare these numbers to the overall figures listed first, most of the assets seized were not liquid, and only around a little bit under 4.4% of the forfeitures are cash. 

And for those that are curious, the government has contractors that sell the assets off and the money raised goes back into the hands of federal law enforcement. 

Nathaniel Sandler is a contributing editor for the arts at WLRN. He is also the co-founder and Head Librarian of the Bookleggers Mobile Library, serving Miami with free books on a monthly basis at literary events throughout the city.
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