By Wendell Willard
Civil forfeiture is the power of law enforcement to seize property believed to be connected with criminal activity and acquire it for law enforcement use through a forfeiture proceeding. Georgia’s current civil forfeiture procedures have come under fire in recent years, sparking a desire for reform.
Critics allege that current laws create a profit incentive for seizing agencies, potentially distorting law enforcement priorities and shifting focus to revenue generation and away from other activities. Civil forfeiture provisions are currently spread throughout the Georgia code and encompass 14 different procedures, which alone calls for creation of one consolidated and standardized procedure. While law enforcement agencies are presently required by law to file an annual report with the state detailing their forfeiture seizures and expenditures, there exists ambiguity on who is expected to do the reporting, the level of detail required to be reported, and what use of the funds is authorized.
House Bill 1, the Georgia Uniform Civil Forfeiture Procedure Act, was first introduced in the 2013 legislative session to address these issues. After lively debate ensued over what legislators and stakeholders considered a number of serious and challenging issues in our state’s law, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, appointed a working group consisting of House members, district attorneys and sheriffs from around the state in an attempt to achieve consensus during the interim. The group made several substantive changes to the bill, which were approved by the House Judiciary Committee in February.
HB 1 seeks to bring uniformity, clarity and accountability to Georgia civil forfeiture procedure. It standardizes civil forfeiture procedure statewide, collecting the disparate provisions into one uniform procedure to be followed for almost all forfeitures.
HB 1 provides for increased transparency and oversight in the civil forfeiture process by strengthening the mandatory reporting requirements of law enforcement agencies, requiring them to provide a proper accounting of all property and funds derived from seizures and forfeitures.
The bill lists specific purposes for which law enforcement agencies may use forfeited proceeds, and specifically excludes the payment of salaries or rewards to law enforcement officers. Ambiguities in reporting procedure are clarified by authorizing the creation of a standardized reporting form and placing the duty to submit the form annually on all law enforcement agencies, which have control over expenditure of any forfeiture proceeds.
The greatest achievement HB 1 seeks to effectuate is an increase in due process safeguards to assist innocent owners in recovering seized currency and property. By simplifying the standard for initiating a claim to recover wrongfully seized assets, the bill reduces the likelihood that procedural pitfalls will deprive an innocent owner of his or her day in court.
Ultimately, HB 1 aims to strike a balance between promotion of public safety — by ensuring that individuals proven guilty of a crime are forced to turn over the fruits of their criminal enterprise — and protection of innocent individuals, to ensure their assets will not be wrongfully taken.
State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, is sponsor of HB 1.