Critics: Ga. Forfeiture Reform Leaves Citizens Vulnerable

Critics of Georgia's civil forfeiture laws say the burden still falls on the property owner to get their seized assets back.
Critics of Georgia's civil forfeiture laws say the burden still falls on the property owner to get their seized assets back.
Credit kenstein / flickr.com

Georgia Senators unanimously voted Tuesday to change how law enforcement agencies can use the proceeds from property they seize, in a process known as civil forfeiture.

But critics say the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect innocent property owners who haven’t been charged with crimes in the first place. Civil forfeiture is a process when law enforcement can take property from someone on suspicion of illegal activity ─ but not necessarily charging them with any wrongdoing.

In October, a Georgia woman was stopped at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport after carrying more than $10,000 with her, according to her lawyer Amanda Evans. Evans says the woman was planning to move to California with her boyfriend and buy a house. But Evans said Clayton County Police suspected something was up with the woman’s money.

“She was actually on a plane that was going to go through Phoenix, and they claimed something about Atlanta to Phoenix is some sort of known drug route,” Evans said.  “They start telling her we know a drug mule when we see one.”

Evans said the money was seized under civil forfeiture laws. Clayton County Police didn’t return requests for comment. But Evans said the money hasn’t been returned to her clients.    

“It’s a lot of money,” Evans said. “That means a big deal to their life. They’ve had to change their plans, and they’ve never been charged with anything.

But it’s all technically legal.

Reforms this year in the state legislature will require law enforcement agencies to be more transparent about how they spend the forfeiture money, and the money can only be used for official law enforcement purposes.  

Advocates say the bill’s a good first step but doesn’t go far enough since people can still have their property taken out of suspicion.

“Burdens are still on the property owner to try to get their property back,” Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, said. 

Paying for a lawyer can get expensive to get a few thousand dollars back, Bullock said.

He said other states have taken further steps to change civil forfeiture laws. New Mexico this year passed a reform bill that requires a person to be found guilty of a crime before having their assets seized.  

But Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said there isn’t anything wrong with the law here.

“This has been an effective tool for, I guess, 30 years in fighting crime and drug activity,” he said. 

Norris said he supports this year’s bill because it will help ensure more confidence from the public when it comes to knowing what departments spend their money on.

Meanwhile, Evans, the attorney, said she’s still waiting on a notice from law enforcement that her clients’ property was even seized so she can go move forward with the case.  

“We don’t actually have a case number to stand up and defend,” Evans said. “We’re just trying to figure out what is our next step in order to get these young people their money back.”

The legal process would also change with the reform. Under the proposal, law enforcement agencies have to process civil forfeiture proceedings within 60 days.

The bill goes back to the House now for review.   

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