By 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 annual dollar value of these seizures and sales 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.
The 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: