By Mike Klein
The House Judiciary committee will conduct its first and likely only hearing on civil forfeiture reform Thursday afternoon with passage of HB 1 widely anticipated. The bill moved out of subcommittee Wednesday after adoption of several amendments; most were read in previous hearings but some were new since legislators last convened to discuss the bill.
One key amendment assures the right of a property owner to file a claim that would be heard in court if he or she believes property was improperly taken into civil forfeiture.
Another amendment adopted Wednesday afternoon would give district attorneys the first opportunity to investigate other law enforcement agencies who file improper civil forfeiture reports. The bill originally stated that the Attorney General’s office would investigate law enforcement agencies, including district attorneys, who may have filed inaccurate civil forfeiture reports. Under new language, district attorneys would conduct those investigations unless they are disqualified for any reason and, therefore, the Attorney General investigate, or in the case where the district attorney’s office itself is under investigation.
The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has opposed HB 1 since the process began last year. However talks with House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Wendell Willard this week did produce agreement on an amendment that regulates how civil forfeiture assets could be used by sheriffs after they decide to not seek re-election, or after they are defeated for re-election. In those specific instances, the outgoing sheriff would not be able to transfer existing assets to another organization or public agency and funds would remain within the sheriff’s office accounts.
A third new amendment approved Wednesday created leniency for law enforcement agencies that terminate employees who knowingly file false information on civil forfeiture required reports. The original bill stipulated that such agencies would not be eligible to receive civil forfeiture assets for two years. Under the amendment agencies could participate in civil forfeitures and receive assets from those seizures if the employee who filed false reports was terminated. The logic there is that the law enforcement agency took corrective measures and it should no longer be penalized.
A hearing before the full House Judiciary committee is scheduled for 2:00pm Thursday in Room 132 at the State Capitol in Atlanta.