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Georgia Civil Asset Forfeiture Plagued by “Rotten Reporting”

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Each year Georgia law enforcement seizes millions of dollars in personal property from people who were never charged with or convicted of a crime.  There was merely the suspicion that a crime had been committed, and that the property might somehow be connected to the crime that never happened.

The story gets worse for property owners.  Georgia state law permits law enforcement agencies to sell the property and keep the proceeds.  The exact dollar value is unknown because law enforcement agencies have largely failed to file required reports.

This is what the Institute for Justice (IJ) said about Georgia civil asset forfeiture policies in a new report released Wednesday:

“Georgia’s civil forfeiture system operates largely in the dark … Minimal reporting – and thus minimal oversight – combined with laws that stack the deck against property owners makes for a precarious situation for Georgia citizens … 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.”

Last year the Georgia Public Policy Foundation joined the Institute for Justice to call on the state Legislature to examine this ongoing situation and to make reforms.  No action was taken by lawmakers.  House Bill 1 introduced this session preserves the authority of law enforcement to make these property seizures but the bill offers very little to help protect individuals.

rotten-reportingThe Institute for Justice report – “Rotten Reporting in the Peach State” — says in 2011 Georgia law enforcement agencies confiscated $2.76 million in personal property from persons who were not charged with a crime.  About half of the property confiscated was worth less than $650, often cash.  The exact value of all personal property confiscated by local law enforcement agencies is unknown because the majority of agencies did not file required state reports.

Federal law also allows law enforcement agencies to seize personal property.  The incentive is high because federal and local agencies share sale proceeds which were at least $32 million in 2011 in Georgia.  Here is a summary of key points from the IJ report:

  • “Reports filed by 58 law enforcement agencies as of July 2012 for the year 2011 reveal $2.76 million in forfeitures.  Half of the properties taken were worth less than $650.
  • “By contrast, federal reports show 147 Georgia law enforcement agencies taking in more than $32 million in forfeiture revenue in 2011 through federal forfeiture procedures, making Georgia one of the most aggressive states in the nation for federal forfeiture.
  • “Of those 147 agencies, 122 have not yet filed a state forfeiture report, even though at least 51 have published legal notices indicating they are also pursuing state forfeitures.
  • “Many state reports that have been filed lack even basic details necessary for proper public oversight, such as what was taken and when, how much it was worth and what was done with the proceeds.”

The agencies that did file 2011 calendar year state reports seized $1.15 million in cash, $1.05 million categorized as “other” and $453,154 in cars.  The federal program known as “equitable sharing” is an agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and local agencies to share in proceeds.  Georgia’s portion of “equitable sharing” grew from $14.5 million in Fiscal Year 2000 to $32.5 million in Fiscal 2011.  The total take during those dozen years: $250 million.  The IJ report says, “The state’s total dwarfed the average of $8.8 million across all states.”

The report says Georgia civil asset forfeiture laws should require a criminal conviction before agencies could take title to assets and proceeds after sale, and impose a higher standard of proof on law enforcement to prove that an asset was connected to a crime.  Also, the Institute says new laws should “Protect innocent owners by removing the burden on property owners to prove their innocence and instead placing the burden of proof on the government.”  Several new requirements are proposed to standardize and improve what law enforcement agencies report.

Lee McGrath is legislative counsel at the Institute for Justice and he is co-author of the Georgia report.  “Police and prosecutors should be chasing criminals, not profits, but allowing the law enforcement to keep the proceeds of forfeited property gives them a direct financial incentive to abuse their power,” said McGrath.  “To remedy this problem, the Georgia state legislature must enact comprehensive forfeiture reform to protect private property.”

Learn more about civil asset forfeiture laws in these Institute for Justice videos on YouTube:

Georgia Law Enforcement Often Refuses to Report Forfeiture Funds

End Forfeiture Abuse: How States Can be Tough on Crime and Respect Property Rights

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

January 31, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Legislature Should Rewrite Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws

Mike Klein

Civil asset forfeiture – which is defined as law enforcement’s authority to seize private property on the suspicion of a crime — has landed on the Georgia State Capitol doorstep.  This week the Georgia Public Policy Foundation called for a rewrite of the state’s asset forfeiture laws to protect citizens whose property was seized even though they are charged with no crime.

“This issue is more of a threat to private property in Georgia than any other issue,” said GPPF President Kelly McCutchen.  “When you have an innocent owner who has done nothing wrong, hasn’t been convicted of a crime, has not been accused of a crime, and their own government seizes property without compensation, and they have to sue to get their property back, that should not occur in the United States of America and it should not occur in Georgia.”

The Foundation is joined by the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm that focuses on civil asset forfeiture laws.  Last March the Institute sued Atlanta and Fulton County to force compliance with state laws that require civil asset seizures disclosure.  The city and county relented and agreed to comply with a court order to submit past and future forfeiture reports.

Lee McGrath, Institute for Justice

Institute for Justice legislative counsel Lee McGrath joined McCutchen at the State Capitol, as did Southern Center for Human Rights Executive Director Sara Totonchi and NAACP Coffee County, Georgia chapter President Larry NeSmith.  McGrath outlined the findings from the Institute’s March, 2011 study that reported on Georgia asset seizures over nearly 20 years.

“Georgia has some of the worst forfeiture laws in the country,” McGrath said.  “You can lose your property without ever being accused of a crime, never mind being convicted.”  Last year the Institute graded Georgia “D-,“ one of the four lowest grades in a 50-state national ranking.

“Worse, Georgia law enforcement agencies get to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds of property they seize,” McGrath said.  “We are here today to call on the Georgia state legislature to reform these laws, to respect property and to put into place restrictions on the power of law enforcement to seize property and to profit from forfeiture laws.”

The Institute’s March, 2011, Georgia report “Forfeiting Accountability” said: “Civil forfeiture is the power of law enforcement to seize cash, cars, homes and other property on the mere suspicion of criminal activity.  Unlike criminal forfeiture, the owner need not be convicted to lose property.  Indeed, a key problem with Georgia’s law is that it forces owners to prove their innocence to get their property back, effectively treating people caught up in forfeiture proceedings as guilty until proven innocent.”

The Foundation and Institute proposed a three-tier rewrite of Georgia asset forfeiture law.  First, eliminate civil asset forfeiture and replace it with just criminal asset forfeiture.  “No one convicted of a crime should keep the ill-gotten gains from that activity but the government should have the burden of convicting you first before you lose final title to your property,” McGrath said.

Second, cash proceeds from asset forfeiture sales should be transferred to the state general fund, rather than be retained inside the budgets of local law enforcement agencies.

Third, the legislature should ensure innocent owners will have their personal property returned to them in a short period of time.  The Institute has documented numerous Georgia cases in which cash or real property was seized from individuals who had to file costly lawsuits to regain their property.  The value of those seizures was a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars.

Proceeds from asset forfeiture sales are significant.  The Institute 2011 report said, “The most recent statistics show that Georgia’s police and prosecutors share in more than $50 million in forfeiture proceeds a year.  This is made up of forfeitures conducted under state law that were reported at $38 million and forfeitures conducted under federal law that average more than $14 million annually between 2000 and 2008.”

Sara Totonchi of the Southern Center for Human Rights said, “The overreach of our civil forfeiture laws invade the lives of Georgians who might just simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Many of these individuals do not have the resources or the knowledge they need to regain what is rightfully theirs.”

Larry NeSmith of the NAACP Coffee County, Georgia chapter said, “Civil forfeiture procedures are so rigged in favor of the state that even innocent people weigh the costs and risks of trying to get back their property.  The public overwhelmingly supports civil forfeiture reform.  It is time for Georgia’s politicians to end the abuse of property rights by enacting sweeping reforms.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

January 6, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment