Dan King
Dan King · May 29, 2024

ATLANTA—Today, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a decision that upholds one of the few modest protections available to victims of civil forfeiture in the Peach State. In the decision, the justices ruled that the government must strictly follow the state’s forfeiture statute by alleging each element of a crime and providing factual allegations supporting each element in its civil forfeiture complaint in order to permanently take someone’s property. The Institute for Justice (IJ) submitted an amicus brief in the case, urging the court to prevent the erosion of these minimal protections. 

Civil forfeiture is a process through which law enforcement can permanently take property—including cars, money, and even homes—from individuals without even charging them with a crime. 

“Georgia’s protections for property owners in civil forfeiture cases are already some of the weakest in the nation, and they were at risk of being watered down even further by the lower courts. But today’s decision ensures that law enforcement still must satisfy basic pleading requirements by alleging each element of a crime and the facts it believes indicate the crime was committed before it can seek to permanently forfeit someone’s property,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban, who co-directs IJ’s National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse. “Not only is that required by Georgia statute, but it is a basic requirement of due process for someone to know what the allegations are so that they can defend against them. This decision is a victory for property rights, but much more work needs to be done to fully protect property owners in Georgia from forfeiture abuse.”  

In November 2021, the Decatur County Sheriff’s Office seized business records, a former residence, multiple vehicles, bank accounts, business properties, and personal files from the owner of a small scrap metal and waste-hauling business. The forfeiture complaint against property owned by Stacey Smith and her husband, Garrett, included vague and ambiguous citations to numerous statutes that it alleged were the basis for the forfeiture.

However, the state failed to meet even the minimum standards that are required before it can keep someone’s property through civil forfeiture under Georgia law. 

In today’s ruling, the court held that police did not adequately allege the essential elements of the crime in its civil forfeiture complaint against the Smiths, saying “the civil forfeiture complaint must, at the very least, ‘recite the language of the statute that sets out all the elements of the offense charged or allege the facts necessary to establish [a] violation of a criminal statute.’” 

Despite today’s ruling, Georgia still has some of the worst protections against forfeiture abuse, receiving a D-minus in IJ’s “Policing for Profit” report. Chief among the concerns with Georgia’s laws is that it has a low standard of proof before police can forfeit property, weak protections for innocent third-party owners, and strong financial incentives for police to seize and forfeit as much as possible.