Civil Forfeiture Reporting Rotten in the Peach State

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · January 28, 2013

Arlington, Va.—Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws are among the worst in the nation but the problems are made worse by a lack of public accountability, as a new report from the Institute for Justice called Rotten Reporting in the Peach State details. Even though a 2011 lawsuit forced some agencies to start filing forfeiture reports, many state reports lack basic details necessary for proper public oversight. Without greater transparency, it is difficult for citizens or public officials to know how forfeiture and its proceeds are being used. State law should be reformed to allow for better and more consistent reporting from all agencies.

Under Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws, law enforcement agencies can seize and keep cars, cash and other private property that is merely suspected of being involved in criminal activity. Unlike criminal forfeiture, a property owner facing civil forfeiture need not be found guilty of a crime—or even charged with a crime—to permanently lose his or her possessions.

The problem at the core of civil forfeiture is the perverse financial incentive that encourages law enforcement to “police for profit” rather than seek the neutral administration of justice. Under Georgia law, law enforcement agencies that take property are allowed to keep 90 percent of the proceeds, after a 10 percent processing fee is paid to the District Attorney’s office.

Forfeiture reform should improve public oversight by creating uniform reporting standards and requiring all agencies to follow them, and it should also address the substantive problems with Georgia’s laws by following three principles embodied in IJ’s forfeiture model legislation: (1) A conviction should be required before final title to property is transferred to the state; (2) an innocent owner who is not suspected of any wrongdoing should quickly get back seized property; and (3) police and prosecutors should not profit from enforcing forfeiture laws.

Reforms like these would allow the state to be tough on crime while still respecting property rights. Convicted criminals would lose ill-gotten gains, and innocent people would not lose their property to overzealous police or prosecutors whose budgets benefit from the taking.

“Civil forfeiture represents one of the biggest threats to property rights in Georgia,” said Lee McGrath, IJ’s legislative counsel. “Georgia has been plagued with forfeiture abuse and it’s time the legislature reformed its forfeiture laws. Rotten Reporting highlights how the perverse financial incentive and significant lack of transparency invite abuse, and what Georgia can do to protect the property rights of all Georgians.”

The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that fights forfeiture abuse across the country, has joined with other civil rights organizations to call on Arizona, Georgia, Minnesota and other states to reform these laws in the upcoming legislative sessions.