Arlington, Va.—Today the Atlanta Police Department may be forced to follow the law. A superior court judge will hear arguments in a lawsuit challenging its policy of keeping from public view the property it seizes under civil forfeiture laws. The lawsuit was brought this March by the Institute for Justice (IJ) on behalf of five concerned Georgia citizens.
Civil forfeiture laws allow the police to seize your home, car, cash or other property upon the suspicion that it has been used or involved in criminal activity. In an attempt to ensure 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.
“Law enforcement should follow the law,” said Anthony Sanders, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm launching today’s challenge. “Yet the Atlanta police simply chose to ignore Georgia law. This is a breach of the public trust and a betrayal of taxpayers.”
The Atlanta Police Department fails to issue these forfeiture reports—required by the state’s controlled substance statutes—thus turning forfeiture proceeds into off-budget slush funds shielded from public view. This problem is common across the state. A report issued in March, 2011, Forfeiting Accountability: Georgia’s Hidden Civil Forfeiture Funds, finds that among a random sample of 20 law enforcement agencies, only two were reporting as required. Of 15 major agencies in Georgia population centers, only one produced the required report. Yet federal data show Georgia agencies taking in millions through forfeiture. Examples of abuse with these funds include a Georgia sheriff spending $90,000 in forfeiture funds to purchase a Dodge Viper, and the Fulton County DA office using forfeiture funds to purchase football tickets.
The lawsuit was also filed against the chiefs of the Fulton County Police Department and the Fulton County Sheriff. In contrast to the Atlanta P.D.’s behavior, the Fulton County agencies have now admitted their past wrongdoing, issued full forfeiture reports for the years 2008, 2009, and 2010, and promised to continue issuing them in the future. The only effort the Atlanta police have done to try and mend their secretive practices is to issue hastily compiled three page reports that list a small fraction of the police department’s forfeitures for the years 2008 and 2009, with no report for 2010.
“The claim that these reports satisfy the law reporting requirements doesn’t pass the laugh test,” added IJ senior attorney Scott Bullock.
Georgia’s forfeiture practices concern Georgia citizens, including IJ clients Ryan Van Meter, Anna Cuthrell, Joseph Kidd, Josiah Neff and Tsvetelin Tsonevski, all taxpaying residents of Atlanta and Fulton County. “Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to private property rights in our nation today,” said IJ client Ryan Van Meter, a native Georgian, Atlanta resident and taxpayer. “Law enforcement can take your property without even charging you with a crime. For law enforcement to fail to even account for what they seize only makes this already bad problem worse.”
For more on today’s lawsuit and report, which are part of IJ’s nationwide campaign to protect private property rights from abusive forfeiture laws, please visit www.ij.org/GAForf.