In an effort to fulfill their duty to protect the public, sheriffs throughout the history of our state have sought to influence legislation which makes Georgians safe. As such, during the 1980s, the sheriffs and prosecutors supported legislation which established law allowing for the seizure and condemnation of property used to facilitate crimes or assets obtained through criminal activity.
Since that time, local police departments, state law enforcement agencies and sheriffs’ offices have seized millions in property and cash through judicial process in the courts. These funds and assets were then used for legitimate law enforcement and prosecutorial purposes. Not only has this saved Georgia taxpayers millions, but it has been the single most effective crime fighting tool ever known throughout the history of our state simply due to the fact that criminal actors, those who sell drugs to our children and others who profit from violating the laws of our state, fear the loss of their ill-gained assets.
During the legislative sessions of 2013 and 2014, sheriffs took a strong position against a proposal which would have effectively destroyed the ability to seize and forfeit illegally obtained assets from criminals. During this two-year discussion, much was said by proponents of the bill regarding the unfairness of the current law and how the property of innocent citizens was being taken without cause and forfeited without judicial oversight. Further, it was said there was no reporting or control of the use the funds.
For the record, it should be known that throughout the entirety of this conversation, there were few, if any, legitimate facts supporting these allegations. The challenges to the current law were unfounded, without merit and driven by influences from outside of the state of Georgia.
The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association actively supported and officially endorsed House Bill 233, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2015, during this past session of the General Assembly. Representative Alex Atwood of Glynn County introduced the bill, which establishes consistency of the process for all offenses in which seizure and forfeiture is appropriate. Also, it enhanced the level of judicial oversight in all cases, further defines the appropriate use of assets, enhances reporting requirements for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies, establishes strict penalties for reporting violations and prohibits prosecutors and sheriffs who do not seek reelection, or who are defeated in elections, from using assets for agencies other than their own during the final months in office.
These are sensible reforms that illustrate our state’s policy to be open and transparent on all matters relative to asset seizure and forfeiture. But the ill-gained assets of criminal actors will be seized and used appropriately by prosecutors and law enforcement agencies at a tremendous benefit to the safety of our citizens and to the detriment of those who chose to prey on Georgians.
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J. Terry Norris is executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs Association.