Civil forfeiture: There’s a better way to do it

There’s an old saying among lawmakers that perfection should not be the enemy of the good. That adage squarely applies to Georgia House Bill 1, which offers significant improvements to the state’s current, too-weak laws concerning civil forfeiture.
Georgia needs a stronger law because the existing statutes covering seizure of assets believed linked to criminal activity do not provide for fair, effective oversight and administration of the forfeiture process.
HB 1 as now written is not all-encompassing in its offered improvements, but it represents a solid step forward. That’s likely the best that can be achieved during this hurried, election-year legislative session. Lawmakers anxious to resume campaigning can’t be counted on to achieve perfection this year. Thus, the good, and not the perfect, will have to do for now.
The bill was passed out of House committee this month. It should be quickly approved by the full House and sent on to the state Senate.
Questionable uses of asset forfeiture have perhaps garnered more attention by laypeople than have descriptions of how the practice works. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement agencies to seize cash or property that they believe is connected to criminal enterprise. Property owners then have to go to court to make a case for why they believe their assets were not connected to wrongdoing. If they lose, their assets are turned over — forfeited — to the government.
It all sounds above board. Yet some aspects of civil forfeitures in Georgia are controversial and raise questions for a justice-seeking society. For example, seizures can be made and affirmed by the courts, regardless of whether criminal charges are ever filed. And forfeitures can happen even when defendants are acquitted in related criminal cases.
Law enforcement officers and prosecutors argue strongly that civil forfeiture is a legitimate tool to hit criminals where it hurts — in their wallets. It’s reasonable to see how making crime NOT pay can have societal benefits.
Yet, serious shortcomings have brought civil forfeiture under scrutiny in Georgia and elsewhere. With good reason.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported how current, loosey-goosey restrictions on use of forfeited monies have led to prosecutors spending eyebrow-raising sums for questionable purposes. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s office has spent tens of thousands of dollars on sporting event tickets, office parties and other perks. Last December, the AJC reported how DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James’ office paid $21,000 toward the cost of a “free” black-tie dinner for senior citizens, ostensibly intended to promote healthy living and awareness of elder abuse. It’s understandable how skeptics can see such events as coming too close to textbook politicking.
Yet, under current state law, such expenditures were legal. Whether they were proper is debatable. Helping resolve that debate is where HB 1 comes in.
The bill would bring increased transparency and tighter rules around the use of forfeiture assets. It also includes language that could give innocent citizens a greater chance of regaining seized assets by proving in court that they were unaware of alleged criminal activity connected with their car, property or money.
HB 1 also reins in prosecutors’ wide discretion in use of forfeiture funds. Seized assets would be pooled into, and disbursed from, a fund that would be overseen by the state Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
The bill forbids spending these monies on things like scholarships, personal or political purposes, or non-law enforcement training. Prosecutors not in compliance with rules could see their forfeiture monies stop flowing until problems are corrected.
The bill also requires uniform reporting by agencies on use of forfeiture funds. This is a good fix for the current system, where too many sets of rules and practices exist, and provide an excuse or cover for agencies to be less than transparent or diligent in filing disclosures.
As a sign of everyday Georgians’ views on all this, a coalition of groups from across the political spectrum has pushed for these sorts of changes. They’re right in that improving civil forfeiture practices will benefit all Georgians and improve government and due process here.
Citizens should demand no less.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

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