Are Sheriffs Suddenly Alone in Opposition to Civil Forfeiture Reform?

(Watch YouTube links to view civil forfeiture reform hearing testimony.)

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation
Mike Klein
Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Given a chance to influence the civil forfeiture reform debate, the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association declined to appear at a House hearing, preferring to send a letter stating opposition to changes the Association said “will not serve to protect or benefit the citizens of our State.”  The vice chairman of the committee that held the hearing referred to the letter as “playing games.”

Friday afternoon discussions that packed a State Capitol hearing room were noteworthy because HB 1 had support from every organization that testified including prosecuting and defense attorneys, the Institute for Justice, ACLU of Georgia, Americans for Prosperity Georgia and the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.  Favorable statements were also read on behalf of Common Cause Georgia and the Atlanta Tea Party.  That does not mean everyone likes everything in the bill but they do like the intent of the bill.

“I hope this legislation is enacted,” said Institute for Justice counsel Lee McGrath.  (YouTube) “With the changes we are recommending this is a bill that could benefit prosecutors, it could benefit law enforcement, it could benefit the citizens of the state,” said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter on behalf of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. (YouTube)

McGrath and Porter opposed passage of HB 1 during last year’s General Assembly.  McGrath said the bill was short on protections for innocent citizens.  Porter said the bill would hinder the ability of district attorneys to seize the property of real criminals, and that it would not clear up how civil forfeitures should be reported or how funds could be spent.  Neither believes the bill now has everything he wants, but it has enough to at least move the conversation ahead.

Others are also stepping forward to support HB 1.  “We find this a very acceptable bill,” said Frank Vincent Rotondo, executive director at the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.  His brief statement, less than one minute in length, represented all of law enforcement’s comment.

The Sheriffs’ Association position was represented by Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore’s letter which said new proposed reporting procedures “will only hinder prosecutors from going forward with forfeitures and thus allow the unwarranted return of illicitly acquired assets of criminals.”  The letter made it clear that the Sheriffs’ Association will continue to oppose the legislation.

The Sheriffs’ Association letter might not reflect the sentiment of every sheriff statewide.  Five sheriffs were named to serve on House Speaker David Ralston’s working group that rewrote HB 1 and Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry voted to support very similar recommendations by the Council on Criminal Justice Reform.  Berry is a past Sheriffs’ Association president.

Witnesses offered several ideas for improvements. Some focused on more protections for citizens and preference for a criminal forfeiture system that would require a conviction.  In that system, no person who was not charged or who was acquitted could have their property seized.

Sandy Michaels from the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said the level for automatic judicial review should be $10,000 instead of $25,000 which is current law.  Last year’s bill would have dropped the automatic judicial review level to $5,000.  “I understand there were objections to $5,000 but $25,000 is really too high to be fair,” Michaels said. (YouTube)

Gwinnett District Attorney Porter said dollar-for-dollar accounting should be addressed because cash seized in civil forfeitures is deposited into interest bearing accounts and that makes it virtually impossible to track a dollar.  “That’s easy with a car or real property but with cash it becomes a little bit problematic,” Porter told the hearing.

ACLU of Georgia legislative counsel Chad Brock said, “We do have concerns with individuals who are coming forward and either cannot afford an attorney or cannot find an attorney who would be willing to represent them when there is an insignificant amount of money involved.”  Brock appealed for better access to the courts for everyone involved in civil forfeiture.  (YouTube)

“We have wording in the bill and assurances from the prosecuting attorneys that if someone says their property is being wrongfully acquired through a forfeiture that’s pretty much all they have to do to get before a judge,” said Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard.  “That’s the main thing.  We want to make sure there’s a judicial review when there is a complaint.” (YouTube)

Rep. Mike Jacobs said House Judiciary subcommittee members should expect to vote on HB 1 when it next comes onto the calendar.  No meeting date and time has been announced.

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