Protect Peach State Property: Reform Georgia’s Civil Forfeiture Laws
Too many of Georgia’s innocent residents are losing their property. That's why the the Institute for Justice has joined with the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity to advocate for the reform of Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws.
Georgia has some of the nation’s worst civil forfeiture laws. In Georgia, law enforcement can seize and keep property suspected of involvement in criminal activity. Unlike criminal forfeiture, with civil forfeiture, a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime - or even charged - to permanently lose her cash, car, home or other property. Plus, law enforcement gets to keep all of the proceeds of forfeiture, creating a perverse incentive to “police for profit.” This is all made worse by a complete lack of public accountability on what is seized and how proceeds are spent.
H.B. 1 is a modest reform that will increase public oversight over civil forfeiture. But the bill is far from perfect. Read more about H.B. 1 below.
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Contact your elected officials TODAY and tell them that you support the reporting requirements of H.B. 1, but you strongly support further reforms that would better protect property owners from civil forfeiture abuse.
Dear elected official,
Too many of Georgia’s innocent residents are losing their property to civil forfeiture. I write today to express my support for the reporting requirement in H.B. 1, but ask that you enact further reforms that will better protect Georgia’s property owners from losing their property:
• Forfeiture funds should be directed into the state’s general treasury.
• No person should lose their property if they are acquitted or their criminal case is dismissed.
• All innocent owner claimants – including those who jointly own property with a suspect – should get their day in court.
Read more below about H.B. 1.
About H.B. 1
Imagine driving home from selling a car. You have $3,000 from the sale. You’re pulled over. Law enforcement can find no evidence of wrongdoing, but takes your $3,000.
You have entered the world of Georgia forfeiture laws where you have to prove that you didn’t obtain the money through criminal activity.
Your next step is to call an attorney but you soon realize it will cost more than $3,000 to hire a lawyer and fight the forfeiture - so you do the rational thing and walk away and lose the money. Law enforcement gets to keep 100 percent of it - and decides the proceeds should go towards football tickets for the district attorney’s office.
This is the very real upside down world of civil forfeiture, and it needs to be reformed now.
Georgia has some of the nation’s worst civil forfeiture laws. Under civil forfeiture, law enforcement agencies can seize and keep property suspected of involvement in criminal activity. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, with civil forfeiture, a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime - or even charged - to permanently lose her cash, car, home or other property.
Plus, in Georgia, law enforcement gets to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeiture, creating a strong incentive to aggressively pursue forfeitures. This is an unfair position to put law enforcement in as it distorts police priorities.
This profit incentive isn’t the only problem with Georgia’s forfeiture laws. Owners who claim to be innocent of any crime bear the burden of proving their innocence, flipping the American tradition of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head.
To make matter worse, Georgia’s civil forfeiture system operates largely in the dark.
State statutes require local law enforcement agencies to annually report and itemize all property obtained through civil forfeiture as well as what they do with it. The trouble is that Georgia’s local law enforcement agencies haven’t. See Rotten Reporting in the Peach State: Civil Forfeiture in Georgia Leaves the Public in the Dark.
Minimal reporting on seizures and expenditures of forfeiture proceeds - and thus minimal oversight - combined with laws that stack the deck against property owners make for a precarious situation for Georgia citizens. Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws desperately need reform, but they also need greater transparency. If citizens and lawmakers are to know how forfeiture is being used in the state, state law must demand more, better and more consistent reporting from all agencies.
Consider the following scenarios:
- Alda Gentile, her teenage son and her infant grandson Daniel were driving to New York from Florida after inspecting a potential condo to purchase. Fourteen miles inside Georgia on I-95, they were pulled over for speeding by Georgia State Troopers. During the stop, officers purposely intimidated the Gentile family by asking if they had any bombs, drugs, guns or money in the car. They had none but Ms. Gentile mentioned a container of money in the trunk - $11,530 left over from a down payment on the prospective condo. The troopers immediately fixated on the cash. They brought in a drug-dog to search the vehicle but found nothing. Nevertheless, after holding the Gentiles on the side of the road for six hours and charging them with no crime (other than a speeding citation), the police seized the cash and sent the Gentiles on their way. After consulting with her attorney-brother, Ms. Gentile engaged a Georgia lawyer and served notice on the state, an action that eventually led to the return of her money almost a month later.
- Shukree Simmons was driving with his business partner from Macon to Atlanta after selling his truck. He was pulled over by a police officer, who searched but found no evidence of any wrongdoing. A dog was brought in to search for traces of drugs, but none was found. Nonetheless, the officer took $3,700 from Simmons, who later mailed the police a copy of the certificate of sale and the title for the truck but still was told he would need to initiate legal action to seek the return of his property. Fortunately for Simmons, the ACLU agreed to take his case and his money was returned.
- Michael Annan was driving through southeast Georgia on his way home to Orlando when he was pulled over on I-95. A native of Ghana, Annan didn’t trust banks and instead carried his life savings - totaling $43,000 in cash - with him. During the stop, police seized the cash, even though a drug dog detected no drugs and no chargers were ever filed against him. Annan had to spend more than $12,000 on an attorney to fight the local police and eventually get back his money.
Now consider the following expenditures. Due to limited oversight, it is unsurprising that investigations have revealed some highly questionable expenditures of forfeiture proceeds; for example:
- In Camden County, Ga., a $90,000 Dodge Viper for the county’s DARE program;
- In Fulton County, Ga., football tickets for the district attorney’s office;
- A sheriff in Georgia has even been the subject of a grand jury investigation for alleged misuse of forfeited assets. In Camden County, Ga.:
- $3,000,000 was used to build a sheriff’s substation;
- vehicles were purchased not only for the department but also for other county departments and neighboring law enforcement agencies;
- $250,000 was donated to the sheriff’s alma mater for a scholarship.
Despite past efforts to increase transparency, the quality of forfeiture reporting in the Peach State remains rotten, leaving citizens and legislators largely in the dark and law enforcement free to forfeit without oversight.
Georgia’s forfeiture laws are desperately in need of reform. The reforms supported by Georgians for Forfeiture Reform are common-sense first steps that property and civil rights activists can all agree to—but H.B. 1 falls far short:
- Reform should require reporting to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, to improve public oversight over civil forfeiture. H.B. 1 does this.
- Under H.B. 1, law enforcement still gets to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeiture, maintaining a strong incentive to aggressively pursue forfeitures. Forfeiture funds should be directed into the state’s general treasury.
- No person should lose their property if they are acquitted or their criminal case is dismissed. Under H.B. 1, if a prosecutor drops a criminal charge or loses a criminal case, the innocent owner can still lose her property.
- All innocent owner claimants should get their day in court. But H.B. 1 maintains that if a person holds a vehicle jointly with a suspect, that owner automatically loses her claim as an innocent owner. This means that any spouse or grandmother who jointly owns a vehicle does not get her day in court.
Reform would protect citizens not only from the loss of their life savings or mode of transportation; they would limit the ability of the government to encroach upon an essential freedom of the individual enshrined in American constitutional law.