ARLINGTON, Va.—Yesterday, the Institute for Justice (IJ) submitted an amicus brief in the Georgia Supreme Court, urging the court to grant review and reverse a Court of Appeals decision that drastically undermines the already limited protections available to victims of civil forfeiture in the Peach State.
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 ambiguous citations to numerous statutes that it alleged were the basis for the forfeiture. However, the state failed to meet even the modest standards that are required before police can keep someone’s property through civil forfeiture under Georgia law.
“Georgia’s protections for victims of civil forfeiture are already anemic, so the absolute bare minimum we should expect is for law enforcement to meet those bare-bones standards before forfeiting people’s property,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban.
First, the state failed to meet the required pleading standard under Georgia law, which mandates that police “allege the essential elements of the criminal violation which is claimed to exist” before they can seize someone’s property. In this case, the state never even presented facts to support the alleged crimes. Thus, allowing the state’s Complaint to proceed also violates the plaintiffs’ due process rights.
Under Georgia law, a hearing is required to take place within 60 days of the last property owner being served, and if that does not occur, the forfeiture should be dismissed. In the case of the Smiths, they did not receive the timely hearing they were entitled to.
“Property owners are entitled to a timely hearing when fighting to get their property back, because the longer they have to wait, the harder and more expensive it becomes to fight back,” said IJ Litigation Fellow Anna Goodman. “The state shouldn’t be able to circumvent the law by intentionally dragging its feet or playing games with the system.”
Furthermore, the state never brought allegations tying any of the property seized to any specific wrongdoing. Unfortunately, the lower court held that simply alleging theft without even pleading that the elements of the crime were satisfied is “good enough” for the state to seize all this property from the Smiths.
IJ’s amicus brief urges the Georgia Supreme Court to hear this case and fix the mistakes made by the lower courts so that the few existing protections for property owners in Georgia aren’t eliminated.
Lynsey M. Barron of Barron Law, LLC in Atlanta, Georgia is serving as local counsel for this case.