Civil forfeiture has gained prominence as a tool to combat the drug trade; however, its targets can be as mundane as motorists or as industrious as independent grocers. Civil forfeiture abuse is a real problem, and many states are considering reforming these laws to protect innocent people who too often have their property unjustly seized.
In Georgia, however, there is a major obstacle to reform: the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association (GSA). Last year the GSA scuttled House Bill 1, which would have raised the burden of proof in forfeiture cases, mandated that any forfeiture of property worth $5,000 or more be brought before a judge rather than handled administratively, and transferred control of forfeiture funds to county commissioners.
In a letter last year, the president of the GSA threatened that the bill would “demoralize the law enforcement community to a point where we will see little public benefit in enforcing the law when it comes to drug dealers and other criminal entrepreneurs.” It is hard to believe that a Georgia law enforcement official would argue that upholding the law is worthwhile only when it is profitable. Such are the perverse incentives created by civil forfeiture laws.
House Bill 1 came back this year and, in its revised form, aimed for more modest revisions to state law. Agencies would face stiffer reporting requirements for the funds they generate via civil forfeiture, and courts would have to make “due provisions for the rights of innocent persons” (presumably by providing a hearing for those wishing to assert an “innocent owner” defense). The modified bill won over a bipartisan coalition, including the ACLU and Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.
But the GSA remained opposed and helped to kill the bill once again. Georgia’s sheriffs have made their position clear: The law works just fine, and anyone who attempts to change it is just helping “the drug dealer.” In other words: Trust us—we’re here to protect you.
That trust is hard to muster given how forfeiture funds have been spent in Georgia. Last year, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard spent a reported $6,000 of the state’s forfeiture money on personal home security and funneled another $6,000 to a lawyers group that put him in their hall of fame. And we cannot forget his other highly questionable expenses, such as a display case to hold sneakers worn by his famous nephew, Dwight Howard. Similarly, the Douglas County district attorney may have spent tens of thousands of forfeiture dollars on perks and privileges for favored employees.
House Bill 1’s reporting requirements were designed to make indiscretions like these harder to conceal. None of its provisions would have hindered the legitimate activities of law enforcement.
Without common-sense protections—such as those opposed by the GSA—it is all too easy for innocent people to find themselves stripped of their property and forced to decide whether they can afford the costly legal fees they will incur to fight for their property rights. Hopefully next year the Georgia legislature will turn its back on the GSA’s alarmist cries and pass forfeiture reform.