By Scott Bullock and Anthony Sanders
The people of Georgia suddenly know a lot more about the civil forfeiture activities of local law enforcement agencies. Just two months after IJ filed suit on behalf of five Fulton County taxpayers in an effort to shine a light on the state’s egregious civil forfeiture laws, the Atlanta Police Department, Fulton County Police Department and Fulton County Sheriff all cried “uncle” and admitted they had illegally failed to report the property they had seized through civil forfeiture. All three of these law enforcement agencies then produced detailed reports documenting the cash and property they had taken for each of the past three years, and what they did with it. Not only that, but they promised in court to do so in the future and to have the reports made publicly available on the Internet, as state law now requires.
One thing we learned from the reports is that many, if not most, forfeitures are less than $1,000. Police are often not focusing their efforts on “drug kingpins,” but on small-time drug possession cases and those cases where individuals lack the resources to defend their property.
Generally, Georgia has terrible civil forfeiture laws. Among other unconstitutional outrages, law enforcement retains up to 100 percent of the proceeds of civil forfeiture for its own use. Further, innocent owners have huge barriers placed in their way when they try to retrieve their property. After law enforcement seizes property that they allege is connected to a crime, the burden is on the property owner to prove his innocence; a perversion, of course, of Anglo-American jurisprudence, but par for the course in many states. Georgia, however, does have a good forfeiture reporting law, requiring annual reporting of forfeiture practices. In the face of this, the law enforcement agencies we sued simply had no defense for their failure to report.
Although the police surrendered without a struggle, the judge assigned to the case hinted at what “might have been” had the government decided to fight. After signing the consent decree the Fulton County defendants previously agreed to, he said, “It looks like you have got their attention.”
Indeed, the judge was right. The lawsuit made a big impression among law enforcement not just in the three departments IJ sued, but across Georgia. As we reported in the last issue of Liberty & Law, the case arose out of a report our strategic research department issued, documenting widespread failure to follow the forfeiture reporting law. The media reported on our research just as heavily as our lawsuit, raising the issue of whether other law enforcement agencies were following the law. Hours after the case was filed we received phone calls from various police departments asking if we had found whether they were in compliance. If governments are calling the Institute for Justice to see whether they are complying with their own law, you know they think there might be a problem.
Our victory in court only affects the three police departments in Fulton County, but the word has now gotten out across the state that if local law enforcement agencies do not begin annually reporting their forfeiture activities, then either IJ, a member of the IJ-trained Human Action Network, or another enterprising litigator for liberty might come knocking on their door.
Scott Bullock is an IJ senior attorney and Anthony Sanders is an IJ Minnesota Chapter staff attorney.