Georgia law enforcement agencies haves used seized assets to pay for patrol cars, computers and other equipment. AJC file photo: CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

How will Wednesday’s SCOTUS ruling affect Georgia communities?

Officials say it has helped agencies combat crime, but critics have warned of abuse

Drug dealers and other criminals have inadvertently supplied the Putnam County Sheriff’s with service weapons, vehicles, a mobile command unit, a precinct building, metal detectors and other equipment.

“All of that for the last 23 years has been purchased with forfeited funds at no expense whatsoever to the taxpayer,” Sheriff Howard Sills said. 

Then came Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling, limiting the use of civil forfeitures.

“What I fear is going to happen is an excessive fine claim is going to be asserted in every forfeiture action,” Sills said. “That being the case, prosecutors will eventually stop doing it.”

He and other officials warn the unanimous ruling could hinder law enforcement agencies’ ability to keep their communities safe.

“This has been the greatest crime-fighting tool we’ve ever utilized,” said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. “People who choose to violate the law by selling drugs or other means don’t pay taxes and make a lot of money. Their stuff is the only thing they value.”

Justices ruled that the Eighth Amendment ban on excessive fines applies to state and local governments. The decision stemmed from an Indiana case where a man’s $40,000 Land Rover was seized after he sold drugs to undercover officers. Lower courts ruled the action was “grossly disproportional” to the offense, but the Indiana Supreme Court said the Eighth Amendment did not protect against state-imposed fines or forfeitures.

The nation’s highest court had the final word.

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote. “Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.”

In 2017, a libertarian group gave Georgia a grade of C minus for its laws that allow law enforcement agencies to seize property or cash that authorities suspect is connected to crime. The middling grade was a step up from the D minus the Institute for Justice conferred in 2010, tagging Georgia as one of the worst states in the nation when it came to protecting residents from unjust seizures.

Georgia legislators revised civil forfeiture law in 2015, adding new restrictions and reporting requirements. Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice then all but shut down the practice.

Officials from the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and Georgia Sheriffs’ Association welcomed former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s announcement two years ago that the department would reinstate “adoptive forfeiture.” Georgia agencies have used seized assets to pay for bulletproof vests, squad cars and other equipment, Norris said.

“Certainly, there’s been abuses. By and large, the law was being appropriately utilized,” he said. “Offenders were being punished and taxpayers were getting a little bit of a benefit. Those expenditures will fall back on property owners and state and local taxpayers. It’s going to be devastating.”

Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter has had a different take on things. To avoid the appearance of conflict, his office has declined seized assets previous law would have allowed, he said in a past interview.

“My opinion is that it’s my job to eradicate the drug trade, not live off of it,” he explained.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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