‘Icemageddon’ Will Delay Civil Forfeiture Reform Bill in House

Update:  House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Wendell Willard said Tuesday morning that he would wait “a few days” before asking that this legislation be considered on the House floor.

By Mike Klein

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

“Icemageddon” will delay until next week House consideration of civil forfeiture legislation but when the bill is announced, do not expect to find Georgia sheriffs applauding from the rafters.

“Unfortunately, we are going to oppose the bill,” Decatur County Sheriff Wiley Griffin said when he testified before House Judiciary last Thursday on behalf of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.  Sheriffs have opposed civil forfeiture reform since last year but conversations last week appeared to create at least the sliver of a chance they might come on-board.

Instead, Griffin read a two-sentence statement from GSA President Bobby McLemore: “The board of directors of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association met this morning and upheld our position of opposition to House Bill 1.  Our present asset forfeiture laws are workable, effective and have been proven constitutional and upheld by our courts at all levels.”

That sparked a polite but exasperated exchange between Rep. Tom Weldon and Griffin:

Weldon: “Have there not been many meetings throughout the year prior to the session in 2013 in order to try to resolve any issues that are related to this bill?”

Griffin:  “That would be a correct statement.”

Weldon: “And it’s the position of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association that the present asset forfeiture laws that are in place at this time are workable and the Sheriffs’ Association would prefer to proceed under (current law) going forward.”

Griffin:  “That is the board of directors’ stance.”

Weldon:  “The Sheriffs’ Association doesn’t have any language that they would like to put in this bill that they are presenting in this letter that they provided here today.  At least, I don’t see it.”

Griffin:  “No, sir, not this bill.”

Weldon:  “And there is nothing that they are offering to perfect the bill to where they would be more comfortable with it or would be able to support the bill.”

Griffin:  “In all due respect, the letter is our stance.”

Weldon:  “Sheriff, I just want to be clear.  This letter that was provided today dated February 6, 2014 does not provide any recommendations on policy issues that are contained in the bill or any language that they are requesting be included in the bill to assuage any concerns that the Sheriffs’ Association has.”

Griffin:  “You are correct.”

The legislation retains “preponderance of the evidence” as the legal standard for civil forfeiture of real property or currency; that is unchanged from current law but it represents a retreat from the “clear and convincing” standard written into the 2013 version of the bill.

All forfeitures valued at greater than $25,000 in property or currency would automatically receive judicial review and any forfeiture valued at less than $25,000 would also receive a court hearing after any property owners’ request in writing, with no exceptions.  The right for any owner to request a hearing is a step forward for citizens’ personal property rights.  The bill contains extensive reporting requirements that are an improvement over current law.

This week was considered potentially pivotal for the legislation.  Stakeholders who support civil forfeiture reform scheduled a State Capitol news conference for Wednesday morning, but they have deferred to “Icemageddon” and will move their event to next week.

Late Monday afternoon, Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard’s office said weather will decide when the bill is heard, either this week or next.  As for the sheriffs’ opposition, Willard’s office said it has not heard anything to suggest a change in their position.

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