“Transparency” has become a hackneyed buzzword in politics. Every politician is a champion of “transparency”; looking to score points by pushing or promoting legislation that would bring a greater degree of sunlight to one governmental process or the other. Just a few days ago, however, a public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice (“IJ” for short), filed suit in Fulton County to force certain government agencies to actually practice “transparency,” not just talk about it.
The issue at hand is whether law enforcement agencies throughout Georgia must actually disclose how they spend monies and other “assets” obtained through the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. These laws, on the books for many years, permit law enforcement to take seized cash or property believed to have been obtained through unlawful acts, even though the owner of the money or the property may never be convicted of a crime. The problem is, a number of law enforcement agencies are seizing large amounts of cash and other assets, and using the money for whatever they want without disclosing what they are doing.
In a report issued at the same time as it filed its lawsuit, IJ noted that in a random sample of 20 Georgia law enforcement agencies, only two were regularly reporting as required by law. Among Georgia’s major cities, only the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department was reporting as required. The Fulton County Police and Sheriff’s departments, and the Atlanta Police Department, were among those agencies not reporting; and these are the agencies sued by IJ on behalf of five Fulton County taxpayers.
Unfortunately, the lack of transparency is not uncommon in Georgia. According to Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws, a report that reviews and examines state and federal asset forfeiture laws, Georgia receives a grade of “D-.” The report notes that the state’s civil forfeiture laws are among the worst in the nation. Adding insult to injury is the lack of disclosure by law enforcement agencies.
Georgia law actually is remarkably clear on this point; law enforcement agencies must report civil seizures to local governing bodies every year. Unfortunately, many law enforcement agencies, including those sued by IJ, simply choose to ignore this mandate.
By ignoring disclosure requirements mandated by state law, law enforcement agencies in many cities and counties across the Georgia have created what amount to their very own slush funds. These funds are often used for less than noble purposes, such as tickets for football games, and one sheriff purchasing a $90,000 Dodge Viper and a $79,000 boat. Another local police chief used 10 vehicles obtained through civil forfeiture for personal use. According to the IJ report, Forfeiting Accountability: Georgia Law Enforcement’s Hidden Civil Forfeiture Funds, that particular chief claimed he used the vehicles “to keep the batteries and tires in working order.” Hardly an argument meeting the “can-it-be-said-without-laughing” test.
Considering that money seized by law enforcement either through their own actions or through equitable sharing with federal agencies can make up a significant portion of their budgets, IJ notes that civil forfeiture laws provide a perverse incentive for police agencies to target and seize property and cash, as opposed to targeting, investigating and proving actual criminal behavior.
Some argue the money in question is used for legitimate purposes more often than not; and that may be true. But disclosing these funds is not a mere suggestion, simply a good idea, or some non-binding policy statement. It is the law. County commissions and city councils across Georgia, tasked with deciding how much their taxpayers will pay for local law enforcement budgets, need to do their job; and demand to know what those agencies are raising and spending through asset forfeiture activities. It should not be up to an outside, public interest law firm representing individual taxpayers, to do their job for them.
-by Bob Barr, The Barr Code