Foundation: Georgia Should Rewrite Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws

Mike Klein, GPPF Forum Editor

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.

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.

Lee McGrath, Institute for Justice

“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.”

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