Forfeiture bill clears first hurdle

Police and prosecutors would be subjected to more scrutiny over how they use cash and property seized in criminal investigations under a bill that cleared the state House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

The vote signals a reversal of fortune for House Bill 1, which overhauls state civil forfeiture law. The bill stalled during the 2013 session under opposition from sheriffs. But after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published stories in June showing that Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard spent thousands of dollars of forfeited funds on galas, sports tickets, staff parties and elaborate home security, lawmakers spent months hammering out a compromise.

“It (the bill) will give citizens in Georgia all the information they would ever want on what law enforcement is doing in terms of seizure of property and how it is used or not used,” said Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter, who spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. The group opposed the bill last year.

The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association still opposes it. Decatur County Sheriff Wiley Griffin read a prepared statement on its behalf that said current law works.

A Georgia Bureau of Investigation into Howard’s spending is ongoing.

Current state law requires agencies to file reports on their forfeiture activity with a state-run website each year. But the AJC found that few complied and that those who did gave little information. The new proposal would standardize the process and require more disclosure. It would also makes it a crime to file a false report.

The bill would also give property owners more opportunity to fight a seizure in court. An owner who objects to a seizure in writing automatically gets a chance to go before a judge, and gets two shots at arguing that the property should be returned.

In addition, individual district attorneys and sheriffs would face more control over how they spend their funds.

Last year, Douglas County District Attorney David McDade was accused of using his forfeiture account to give side jobs and government cars to favored employees. Troup County commissioners found a lame-duck sheriff spent $2 million in forfeiture funds during the last months of his term and transfered some to other agencies.

The DA’s cut of forfeitures would go into a trust fund overseen by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, which could withhold money if a district attorney breaks spending rules. Lame-duck sheriffs would be barred from transferring money to another agency.

The revisions roll back a proposal in last year’s version that would have made it tougher to seize property. That version said law enforcement could not take property unless “clear and convincing evidence” tied it to a crime.

The current version returns the standard to a “preponderance of evidence”– the same as existing law.