Forfeiting Accountability: Georgia Lawsuit Targets Hidden Civil Forfeiture Funds

May 25, 2011

By Scott Bullock

IJ’s nationwide initiative against forfeiture abuse brought us to Georgia in March. There, we filed a lawsuit to shine a light on off-budget law enforcement slush funds that are created with property and cash taken by civil forfeiture.

Under draconian civil forfeiture laws in Georgia and most other states, the police can seize your home, car, cash or other property upon the mere suspicion that it has been used or involved in criminal activity, regardless of whether you have been convicted of a crime or even arrested. Civil forfeiture represents one of the greatest assaults on private property rights in our nation. And Georgia has some of the worst forfeiture laws and practices in the nation, earning a
D- in our national forfeiture report released last year. One good aspect of Georgia forfeiture law, however, is that it at least attempts to ensure that civil forfeiture is subject to public scrutiny. Georgia law requires local law enforcement agencies to annually itemize and report all property obtained through forfeiture, and how it is used, to local governing authorities.

But many, perhaps most, local Georgia law enforcement agencies fail to issue these forfeiture reports, thus turning forfeiture proceeds into slush funds shielded from public view. That is a breach of the public trust and a betrayal of taxpayers. Our lawsuit on behalf of five Georgia citizens seeks to force the head law enforcement officers of Fulton County and the City of Atlanta to disclose all of the property they have seized under Georgia forfeiture statutes along with how they utilized that property.

IJ’s Georgia lawsuit grew directly out of our strategic research program. While assembling our Policing for Profit report last year, we discovered that civil forfeiture laws are notoriously opaque. Only 29 states require reporting of property seized through forfeiture, and, even in those states that require reporting, such as Georgia, the laws are not properly enforced.

For instance, we took a random sample of 20 law enforcement agencies in Georgia and found that only two were reporting as required. This research led to the publication of a new report: Forfeiting Accountability: Georgia’s Hidden Civil Forfeiture Funds. The report also highlights examples of abuse with forfeiture funds, including a Georgia sheriff spending $90,000 in forfeiture money to purchase a Dodge Viper, and the Fulton County district attorney’s office using forfeiture funds to purchase football tickets.

The mission of our case is simple but vitally important: Law enforcement should follow the law. Our latest forfeiture lawsuit will guarantee that Georgia law enforcement agencies are accountable to taxpayers and property owners throughout the state.

Scott Bullock is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice.

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