Atlanta, Ga.—Alda Gentile knows firsthand the horror of forfeiture abuse. The police pulled her over on I-95 and held her for over six hours before letting her go. Even though she was never charged with a crime, they used Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws to seize over $11,000 and Alda had to sue to get her money back. Today, Alda is joining with the ACLU, Americans for Prosperity, Common Cause, the Institute for Justice, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Atlanta Tea Party to form Georgians for Forfeiture Reform (GFFR). This bipartisan group represents over 200,000 Georgians who want to end the forfeiture abuses by law enforcement agencies across the state.
”I experienced the violation of being stopped, searched and detained at roadside for over six hours,” Alda said. “I got my money back but I haven’t gained any peace of mind. Georgia’s law enforcement intimidates you, hoping you just walk away so they can keep your money. It’s highway robbery. Georgia must reform its forfeiture laws now.”
Under Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws, police and prosecutors can seize and keep cars, cash and other property without ever charging someone with a crime. In 2011 alone, agencies took in $32 million using federal law and another $3 million under state law. GFFR is committed to changing the laws that give perverse incentives to law enforcement to engage in “policing for profit” at the expense of the fair administration of justice.
“Georgia’s forfeiture laws are some of the worst in the nation and the very worst in the South,” said Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice (IJ), a nationwide public interest law firm that fights against civil forfeiture across the country. “Policing for Profit, a 2010 report by IJ, gave Georgia a D- for its civil forfeiture laws and practices. Only four other states received similarly low grades.”
The state’s current laws allow sheriffs and police chiefs to keep forfeiture proceeds as slush funds to spend as they wish. For example, investigators found more than $700,000 in questionable expenses by Camden County’s sheriff between 2004 and 2008, including a $90,000 Dodge Viper and a $79,000 boat.
In the current legislative session, state legislators are considering a bill, HB-1, that will improve the reporting of forfeitures across the state. The bill authorizes the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia to compile forfeiture information and issue reports to legislators and any interested Georgian.
But state legislators must do more. “Civil forfeiture represents one of the biggest threats to property rights in Georgia,” said Julianne Thompson, co-chair of the Atlanta Tea Party. “Georgia is plagued with forfeiture abuse and it’s time the Legislature take bold steps to reform our forfeiture laws.”
“The right to due process is one of our most cherished constitutional rights,” said Chad Brock, attorney with the ACLU of Georgia. “Georgia’s forfeiture laws deny innocent property owners due process because joint owners cannot petition the court to have their property returned, even when they had no knowledge of any crime. The Legislature must change the law to give innocent property owners their day in court.”