Civil forfeiture reform at last

After three long years of sound legislative work, often involving extensive give and take from many points of view and divergent interests, the Georgia General Assembly this year passed House Bill 233, also known as the Georgia Uniform Civil Forfeiture Procedure Act. After reasonable compromise, the Act was signed into law on May 7th.

Civil forfeiture is the ability of the government to seize and keep property believed to have been purchased with criminal proceeds or used in criminal activity. A criminal conviction is not necessary to seize property and even an arrest is not needed.

Candidly, this legislation was long overdue. Georgia’s civil forfeiture procedures had come under fire in recent years, sparking a desire for reform. Some had even alleged that current laws created a profit incentive for seizing agencies, potentially distorting law enforcement priorities and shifting focus towards revenue generation. Other critics had even ranked Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws the worst in the country, at least as far as protecting innocent citizens was concerned.

After two years of legislative work by many good people, the previous forfeiture legislation had failed to garner enough support to even bring the measure to the House floor for a vote. As an attorney, former magistrate judge and retired federal agent, I had been asked by House leadership to assist in addressing these concerns this past legislative session. It was not easy. Law enforcement and personal property advocates were still at odds over proposed reforms.

This year, we started again. After numerous meetings and taking some extra time to listen to the concerns of all involved, the Georgia Uniform Civil Forfeiture Procedure Act finally took form, ultimately receiving strong support from the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, the District Attorney’s Association of Georgia, along with civil liberties and liberty-minded organizations.

It was long overdue, and I truly believe all involved can be proud of the successful outcome.

Before House Bill 233 became law, Georgia had 34 different forfeiture statutes, with 14 different procedures used, and three statutes that provided no procedure at all. This alone cried out for reform. Now all civil forfeiture procedures in Georgia are standardized, providing one uniform procedure to be followed for almost all civil forfeiture cases.

Additionally, the act has increased government transparency and oversight in the civil forfeiture process by strengthening the mandatory reporting requirements of all law enforcement agencies, improving accountability, putting rules in place on how forfeited proceeds can actually be used by law enforcement, and providing property owners who are trying to recover wrongfully seized property better access to our courts.

Under our new forfeiture law, all property and funds received by state agencies from seizures and forfeitures must now be reported annually and made available for public review. To make these reports easier for public review, a standardized reporting form will be created for use by any state agency that receives forfeited assets and authorizes the district attorney to conduct reviews and audits of such reports.

The act also provides for due process safeguards to assist innocent owners in recovering seized property by simplifying the standard for initiating a claim to recover such property. A provision of this act also allows the judge in a civil forfeiture action to grant either party additional opportunity for investigation into the facts and issues involved. Additionally, it permits anyone who has a claim to the seized property to appear before the court to defend his or her interest.

My third term next year will be my final service in the Georgia House of Representatives. As I leave, I will certainly look back with pride and appreciation to all concerned who helped to get this needed reform placed into law.

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State Rep. Alex Atwood House, a Republican, represents District 179, which includes portions of Glynn County.