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It's Only Just: Your Car Is Innocent Until Proven Guilty - By Joel Aaron Foster

January 31, 2014 J

Michael Annan was driving through southeast Georgia on his way home to Orlando when he was pulled over on I-95. A native of Ghana, Annan didn’t trust banks and instead carried his life savings – totaling $43,000 in cash – with him. During the stop, police seized the cash, even though a drug dog detected no drugs and no chargers were ever filed against him. Annan had to spend more than $12,000 on an attorney to fight the local police and eventually get back his money.

A fundamental driving force behind an individual’s motivation for success in the free market is the assurance that the law is on your side and your private property – the fruits of your labor – are protected. In Georgia, however, too many innocent residents are losing their personal property. Georgia laws are currently written so that law enforcement officers can actually seize your property, like your car, if they suspect it may have been used in a crime and even cash it in and use the proceeds for the police station before there’s a conviction. Worse yet, the burden of proof is often on you, not the state, to prove your innocence. It’s time for reform.

The process, known as civil asset forfeiture, allows law enforcement to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds from assets seized. This creates a perverse incentive for law enforcement and needlessly jeopardizes the reputation of our brave men and women in uniform who are charged with ensuring public safety. The General Assembly is currently pushing for a modest reform in House Bill 1 that provides sunshine and public transparency in the forfeiture process by increasing the reporting requirements and making the reports publicly accessible through the quasi-government agency, the Carl Vincent Institute at the University of Georgia.

A new and diverse coalition, Georgians For Forfeiture Reform, is standing together to support House Bill 1 and urge the General Assembly to continue improving on Georgia law in years to come. While HB 1 is a good start, it still allows law enforcement to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeitures. Simply moving forfeiture assets into the General Treasury of the State would provide a layer of accountability and work to protect innocent citizens. No innocent owner claimant should lose their property simply because he or she jointly owned property with someone convicted of a crime; however, under current Georgia law the joint owner of the property automatically loses her claim as an innocent owner without ever seeing a courtroom to argue in her defense. This is guilt by association and it is not addressed by HB 1. And the nature of civil forfeiture court proceedings, itself, is disingenuous where the suspect is tried in criminal court while their property is tried in civil court due to a lower burden of proof that often makes it even easier to get a forfeiture conviction on your property. This is not addressed by HB 1.

Clearly, Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws need reform in order to protect the property rights of people like Michael Annan. HB 1 gets the ball rolling on a complex problem that too often catches innocent citizens in its crosshairs.

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