Forfeiture reforms up for Senate vote

Drive around with a large amount of cash in Georgia and a traffic stop can cost more than a ticket. If officers grow suspicious about how you got the money, they can seize it — even if they never arrest you. And the burden’s on you to prove your innocence to get it back.

Law enforcement says these civil forfeitures take money from drug dealers. Critics call it policing for profit. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that what agencies take and how they use it is largely hidden from view.

Now the state Senate is poised to vote on a bill that would create new transparency and spending requirements. Backers say it would give property owners more protections and fix provisions that law enforcement officials complain are unclear.

Policing agencies and civil libertarians alike have said that current law needs an overhaul, but disagreements prevented a bill from passing for nearly three years.

“It’s been a very long process,” said Rep. Alex Atwood, R-Brunswick, who took over the bill from its original sponsor, Sandy Springs Rep. Wendell Willard. “We’ve had a lot of spirited debate.”

As discussions dragged on, calls for change increased. An AJC investigation in 2013 found that Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard spent tens of thousands of dollars in civil forfeiture proceeds on perks such as gala tickets and parties, as well as a security door for his house and a private movie screening for his office.

Motorists told the AJC of officers who took their cash without evidence a crime took place.

In southeast Georgia, officers found no drugs and made no arrests when they stopped a New York grandmother on her way to buy a Florida condo in 2012. Still, they confiscated the entire down payment of $11,530 and refused to leave $20 for gas or food for her grandchild.

On Interstate 75 north of Macon, deputies did not arrest or ticket an East Point man they stopped in 2009, yet they seized $3,700 in cash he made when he sold a Chevrolet pickup to pay rent. By the time they returned the money, he had been evicted and was living in his car.

“We certainly had at least a perception that our laws kind of created a profit incentive,” Atwood said. “Some of it was in the newspaper, and it kind of sparked a desire for reform.”

Gov. Nathan Deal called for a closer look at civil forfeiture laws after the AJC’s stories were published, and the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia changed its reporting procedures for district attorneys.

Yet complaints of abuses continue. Last April, Douglas County District Attorney David McDade announced he would retire after accusations he spent forfeiture funds on perks and side jobs for favored employees.

And in the fall, Clayton County police seized more than $10,000 in cash from a woman they stopped at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. They said she was a drug mule, yet they never arrested her, said her attorney Amanda Evans.

The money was for a down payment on a house, Evans said. It has not been returned.

“It’s basically gone into a proverbial black hole,” the attorney said.

Clayton police did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

A decision by the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association to drop their opposition to HB 233 breathed new life into the bill. Previously, members crowded Judiciary Committee meetings and accused former sponsor Willard of coddling drug dealers.

The proposal sailed through the House March 2 with a unanimous vote.

“We think it does what it’s intended to do, which is to take the profit out of crime,” said Decatur County Sheriff Wiley Griffin.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia also backs the bill, calling it a “good first step.”

“Low-income people in particular face great challenges in attempting to reacquire their seized property, even when they have rightful claims to it,” said Marvin Lim, a lobbyist for the ACLU.

Owners who dispute a forfeiture will have a chance to be told what proof they need to present to get their property back.

The bill requires policing agencies to submit standardized reports to a publicly accessible website. The reports would list what was seized, its value and how any proceeds were spent.

Current law already requires agencies to post such reports, but they were not standardized, and few were submitted to the website. Sheriffs and police complain that current reporting rules are unclear.

The proposal also gives agencies more detailed restrictions on how forfeited cash and property is used.

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