Imagine you are going to buy a used car. You take several thousand dollars in cash, because you haven’t inspected the car yet, and you want some flexibility to bargain on the price. Under current Georgia law and practice, a law officer could confiscate your cash and you’d need to hire an attorney to get your cash returned. No drugs, no crime, no charges – but you have to defend yourself and forfeit your property. Their claim: a large amount of cash is a preponderance of evidence that you are a drug dealer.
Sound ridiculous? Not to those who have been victimized by law enforcement (including prosecutors) policing for profit. Cash, cars, even homes are seized. How many? There’s no way to tell, because the reporting is so shoddy no one can tell the basics required for effective oversight: what was taken, when, value, and how proceeds were spent.
We do know that Fulton County District Attorney Howard had a less than flattering write-up in the Atlanta Journal last week concerning abuse of civil forfeiture funds. “During the past five years, Howard spent $2,700 on wrought-iron security doors for his house…. $4,450 worth of tickets to the Bank of America Atlanta Football Classic…. $6,000 went to a lawyers group that inducted him into its Hall of Fame. Tens of thousands more went to office parties, black-tie affairs, and donations to well-connected churches and nonprofits. All the while, Howard complained to county commissioners that any cuts to his office could force him to lay off prosecutors.” Howard claimed that his expenditures were legal, which illustrates one problem. Georgia law doesn’t specify exactly what funds gained by civil forfeiture must be used for.
GA law does call for reporting by law enforcement agencies, which most often is ignored. The Institute for Justice sued several GA agencies in 2011 to get their reports done. Yet, IJ reports that of those 147 Georgia law enforcement agencies that filed federal forfeiture reports, 122 have not yet filed a state forfeiture report, even though at least 51 have published legal notices indicating they are also pursuing state forfeitures.
Just an Atlanta problem? Hardly. The Camden County Sheriff in SE Georgia lost re-election after years of pillage that gained him an $80,000 speed boat, several vehicles, and funds to pay for convict labor to do his and his ex-wife’s yardwork, among other things. And suburban Cobb County Sheriff’s Department got 75% of its funds from civil forfeiture in one recent year.
Philosophically, there are Constitutional objections to civil forfeiture as practiced in Georgia: private property rights, innocent until proven guilty, 4th amendment prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure. But it doesn’t even make sense on a practical level. Will officers enforce the law differently based on enhancing the department’s bottom line? Why patrol neighborhoods when you could be on the interstate hauling in some cars and cash? Why not let that drug dealer accumulate more money and fancy cars before the bust, so the department gets more funds to work with? This is dangerous for everybody. And, from the victim’s perspective, at what point is it easier to walk away from your property, because it’s too expensive and exhausting to pursue justice?
But try to tighten up the legal requirements for reporting and executing civil forfeiture, and you’ll be maligned for siding with drug dealers. If there were only isolated infrequent problems, as they claim, then who could object to accountability? The current legal standard of preponderance of evidence is too low; innocent citizens are victimized.
Georgia citizens need to stand up and demand accountability for civil forfeiture funds and reform of civil forfeiture laws. You can support both honest law enforcement and your own Constitutional rights. I do.
Virginia Galloway is the State Director of Americans For Prosperity Georgia.