It’s still theft by another name

Dictionary.com describes “theft” as “the wrongful taking and carrying away of the personal goods or property of another.” That also describes “civil asset forfeiture” by law enforcement authorities.

Law enforcement agencies have argued civil asset forfeiture is a necessary crime-fighting tool; others admit, more honestly, it’s a cash cow. Seminars list the profitable items to seize. News reports highlight agencies’ abusive spending on parties and vehicles, and even how police stop suspects’ vehicles in the cash-carrying lanes leaving a city instead of the drug-carrying lanes into town.

Whatever their claim, agencies operating essentially on commission are seizing property from individuals without charging them or convicting them. Meanwhile civilians, who may live far from where a vehicle, cash or other property was seized, must follow complicated deadlines and procedures to get it back.

It’s called “policing for profit” or – as a new Heritage Foundation publication describes it – “Arresting Your Property.” The Institute for Justice, leading a national reform campaign, calls this a “toxic mix.”

While law enforcement groups (in Georgia, specifically, the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association) have resisted tougher rules, a new law took effect July 1 promising Georgians greater accountability and transparency.

It standardizes deadlines and procedures for seizing property and for interested parties to stake their ownership claim. Law enforcement agencies already were required to report seized assets and distribution; reporting was haphazard. The law outlines how agencies must distribute, use and report seized assets and includes penalties for fraud, improper use and violations.

But transparency and uniformity are a far cry from protecting innocent Georgians. How many low-income families can’t afford to retrieve grandma’s furniture seized after a grandson surreptitiously sold pot stashed in his bedroom? How many struggling single parents lose the only household car because of a child’s drug possession? How many entrepreneurs and students lose money because an officer decides they have a “suspicious” amount of money in their possession during a “routine” traffic stop?

The answer, as Heritage’s “Arresting Your Property” recounts, is too many. It’s why the Institute for Justice’s campaign has drawn an unusual coalition of national and state organizations, including the Georgia Public Policy Foundations Heritage, the American Civil Liberties Union, American Center for Law and Justice, American Legislative Exchange Council and the Charles Koch Institute.

Georgia must improve citizen protections:

A. Georgia’s “preponderance of evidence” standard places the burden on people to prove they were not involved. Law enforcement should prove they were involved.

B. Now, monetary proceeds in a pending case must be deposited in an interest-bearing account. The interest goes to a County Drug Abuse Treatment and Education Fund. it should go to the owner.

C. It dedicates proceeds to nebulous official law enforcement or prosecutorial use, including travel, awards, museums, equipment and capital improvements. Legislators should control the funds.

D. It’s wrong that even if prosecutors are unable to prove the crime, they can still go after the assets.

Civil asset forfeiture is an egregious hole in Georgia’s legal system. End agencies’ incentive: Establish a fairer process that absolutely prohibits law enforcement agencies from profiting directly from proceeds.

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Benita M. Dodd is vice president of Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

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