Georgia should limit state-sanctioned highway robbery

If more Georgians knew how easily police officers could legally and permanently confiscate their property, regardless of guilt or innocence, there would be a public outcry.

A government tactic called civil property confiscation allows law enforcement officials to do just that, and it often amounts to little more than state-sanctioned theft.

Beginning in the 1980s, asset confiscation gained importance in the United States to “break the financial backbone of organized crime syndicates and drug cartels,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The procedure allows Georgian police to confiscate property from people simply on suspicion of involvement in a crime, and law enforcement agencies can do so without arresting anyone.

In many cases, when owners want their belongings back, they have a tight window in which to prove that their belongings were not involved in illegal activity — throwing the presumption of innocence on its head. If this is not proven in court, ownership may permanently vest in the government. The windfall then benefits police departments, creating moral hazard by incentivizing the pursuit of further forfeits.

A recent report by the Georgia Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights highlighted some inherent flaws in the Peach State’s wealth forfeiture model and the need for reform. “While data from Georgia is limited,” the report states, “comparable data from other states shows that forfeiture is often of very small amounts and is disproportionately used against poor people and people of color.”

In South Carolina, “seven out of 10 people with property robberies are black, and 65 percent of all money seized by police comes from black men,” according to a Greenville News article, but it’s not just South Carolina. Nationally, asset collapse is “a problem that disproportionately affects minorities and low-income communities,” wrote Radley Balko, a former Washington Post columnist. While this data isn’t specific to Georgia, it’s plausible that similar issues exist here, but one thing is certain: Georgian police confiscated an inordinate amount of property.

“Between 2015 and 2018, Georgia law enforcement withheld more than $51 million under state law. Between 2000 and 2019, they generated an additional $388 million from federal equitable apportionment, totaling at least $439 million in forfeiture revenue,” the Institute for Justice found.

Many of these individuals were hardly suspected of being drug lords, considering that roughly half of Georgia’s currency losses were around $540 or less. Given that hiring an attorney to fight a foreclosure can cost more than $540, many probably find trying to recover their property pointless.

Of even more concern, nationally, “most civil forfeiture cases have no associated arrests or criminal charges,” according to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission report, which suggests myriad seizures stem from questionable circumstances. There are many examples of this too.

Back in 2012, police pulled over a grandmother, Alda Gentile, in Camden County, Georgia, allegedly for speeding. She was returning from Florida, where she had been buying condos, and had $11,500 in cash in her vehicle. An officer spotted the money, asked her if she was a drug dealer, and confiscated the cash, although she did not arrest Gentile. She later recouped it, but not without a struggle. Many others were not so lucky and ended up forfeiting their property without the same due process that many of us expect.

While the US Department of Justice claims that asset forfeiture is in part to “recover property that can be used to compensate victims,” ​​states often don’t spend much on crime survivors. “From 2015 to 2018, Georgia law enforcement spent $37 million in forfeiture money — two-thirds of that on equipment and capital expenditure,” writes the Institute for Justice. A meager 2 percent went to victim compensation and services.

One of Georgia’s most egregious foreclosure expenses came out of Gwinnett County a few years ago when then-Sheriff Butch Conway used federal foreclosure funds to purchase a 707-horsepower Dodge Charger Hellcat for a whopping $70,000. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that he had used it to drive to and from work and claimed it would make the streets safer because he would use it to “educate drivers about the dangers of distracted driving and illegal street racing.” clear up”. He eventually agreed to return the federal property forfeiture funds.

Clearly, there are problems with the Georgian model of civilian wealth decay. It creates an incentive for authorities to confiscate assets, disproportionately impacts blacks and the poor, and has enabled the confiscation of property from law-abiding citizens. Georgia can certainly do better.

The simple solution is for the state to require law enforcement to obtain an underlying criminal conviction before forfeiting a person’s property. That’s not too much to ask.

Marc Hyden is Director of State Affairs at the R Street Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.