Forfeiture is Peachy in Georgia

A Georgia prosecutor thinks crime does pay, according to a legal filing from a former state attorney general.

Mike Bowers, who served as the attorney general of Georgia from 1981 to 1997, claims Macon Judicial Circuit district attorney David Cooke Jr. and Atlanta attorney Michael Lambros are retaliating against his clients—Ronnie and Lee Bartlett, an elderly couple from the Macon suburb of Peach County—for suing the attorneys after a 2016 raid shut down the couple’s restaurant. Law enforcement seized nine coin-operated video games from the restaurant along with the couples’ bank accounts, but for 17 months the couple was never charged with a crime.

And then, 15 months after the raid—which shuttered the restaurant and forced the Bartletts into bankruptcy—the couple sued Lambros and Cooke. Not long after the Bartletts’ lawsuit—but 17 months after the raid—the couple was charged with racketeering, commercial gambling, possession of a gambling device or operating a gambling house, and failing to turn over sales tax revenues to the state for the coin-operated video games.

Under civil forfeiture, law enforcement can seize property from innocent people on the suspicion that it was somehow involved in a crime. Agencies often forfeit property without ever convicting, let alone charging, anybody with a crime. Forfeiture proceeds often fund law enforcement officials’ salaries and budgets, giving them a direct financial incentive to abuse this power. In July, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled back modest reforms to federal involvement in civil forfeiture with the explicit goal of increasing the cash flow to law enforcement agencies from people who are never convicted of a crime. Fortunately, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to defund those efforts. But that bill has not been signed into law, and it wouldn’t stop state law enforcement in places like Georgia from pursuing forfeitures under state law.

Bowers contends the belated criminal charges against the Bartletts are blatant retaliation for their civil suit and is seeking to disqualify Lambros and Cooke from prosecuting them. The indictments have already resulted in a stay of the couple’s civil suit. Central to Bowers’s attempt to dismiss the charges and disqualify the prosecutors is his argument that Lambros benefits directly from civil forfeiture proceeds by collecting contingency fees from Cooke’s office based on the value of the forfeited property. The complaint alleges that under Georgia law, such a payment arrangement is illegal according to statute and the Georgia Supreme Court.

Lambros defeated a 2016 disqualification motion during his time as a special assistant district attorney (ADA) in Clayton County, claiming that he is paid hourly for his work. But this time, according to the Daily Report, Bowers believes open records prove otherwise:

In one 17-month period from April 2016 to August 2017 in Cooke’s circuit alone, Lambros was paid $710,000 after he secured more than $3.3 million in asset seizures—far more, the motion said, than if he had billed at an hourly rate as a special ADA. Lambros holds similar appointments as special ADA in other circuits across the state.

In the same 17-month period during which Lambros earned $710,000, the special ADA channeled more than $2.6 million to Cooke’s coffers, the motion said.

Citing donations Cooke has made to local civic groups from those forfeited assets, Anulewicz said, “It is very clear that the DA’s office in Macon has profited substantially from its continued forefeiture efforts and that these monies have been expended not for his office but on politically beneficial issues.”

According to the Institute for Justice’s (IJ) “Policing for Profit” report, Georgia earns a D- for its civil forfeiture laws. The Peach State has a low bar to forfeit property, including the lack of a criminal conviction requirement. There are also poor protections for innocent third-party property owners, and law enforcement can keep as much as 100% of forfeiture proceeds. IJ researchers also found that Georgia has historically had very little oversight of forfeiture activity.

JOIN THE FIGHT!   Sign up for newsletters:

JOIN THE FIGHT!