Law enforcement slush funds?

“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

28 comments Add your comment

Amy Barnes

April 11th, 2011
6:13 am

Thank you, Bob (Barr)!

I have Bob Ott on Audio recording insisting that Cobb County Board of Commissioners aren’t violating any laws. O.C.G.A. § 16-13-49 (u)(4)(D)(iii) states:

Any local law enforcement agency receiving property under this subsection shall submit an annual report to the local governing authority. The report shall be submitted with the agency’s budget request and shall itemize the property received during the fiscal year and the utilization made thereof.

I rest.

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Gurgal Strands

April 11th, 2011
7:25 am

It is the law. But where is the penal code in this law?

Reading this, one gets the idea that a traffic cop helped himself to the box of donuts that Bob had on his front seat when he last got a ticket for speeding. I guess I’d be mad too. I like jelly the best. Then lemon. Then powdered. Then old fashioned. The coffee is marvelous too, at Dunkin’ Donuts. (Better than McD’s)

Legal Point for discussion: Can I make a citizen’s arrest of any cop who doesn’t declare the value of the property he confiscates from innocent drug dealers, and if that same cop resist’s my citizen’s arrest, can I go full Rodney King on his sorry behind ? I certainly hope so because late last night I was driving south down North Blvd; or was it North down South Blvd? Anyway, this hitchhiker I had just dropped off had left this quarter key of desicated peyote buttons in the rim of my spare tire, you see, and so’s I gets pulled over………

Conclusion: Lets let the cops have something, okay? They don’t get paid diddly. They risk their lives. Lets label all this undeclared confiscated booty their combat pay bonus. Okay? Bob Barr smites his big brother to save chicken little this time. You know, every night as I go over the chicken little story, you know, the way he kept crying wolf, and how he was actually raised by wolves who taught him how to raid chicken coops, from which he collected enough feathers to create his super chicken costume which totally fooled everyone when he started chiming about the sky falling……anyway, as I read the story I notice little bits of Bob Barr’s blog that day. I mean, people, the guy is stealing verbatim from Aesop, man. (or is it Mother Goose?)

Dammit, I always get my biblical lore mixed up.

Barr’s piece today doesn’t pass the “can it be read without barfing” test.

carlosgvv

April 11th, 2011
8:37 am

“among the worst in the Nation”

The above sums up Georgia’s ranking in most areas of civil endeavor. As for the actions of Georgia Law Enforcement, any Government agency recieving large sums of cash and assets with little or no oversight is almost certainly going to do this.

Ragnar Danneskjöld

April 11th, 2011
9:46 am

Bravo Mr. Barr. The mere concept of “civil forfeiture” makes my blood boil. By any rational measure such revenues ought to go through general revenues rather than lodge withing individual agencies. Same with “punitive” damages on lawsuits.

the watch dog

April 11th, 2011
9:49 am

Georgia agencies are taking millions through forfiture. Examples of abuse include a Georgia sheriff spending $90,000 in forfiture funds to purchase a Dodge Viper. Fulton County DAs office using forfiture funds to purchase football tickets.[Policing for Profit] with civil forfiture your property is guilty until proven innocent. There should be a final settlement of facts.

We think of the sheriff and DA as [paragons of virtue] to think that they would stoop to this goes beyond the pale. Probably those tickets were in a “sky box” with a fancy buffet and served by Atlanta “cheer leaders”, and the liquor, top shelf scotch, no “chattahootchie hootch’ for those guys.
And me, driving around in a $17,000 three year old Toyota Corolla and the sheriff with the “hot wheels”.
Civil servants are already being paid more than their counterparts in private enterprise. When I think of the poor, downtrodden taxpayer keeping these servants in luxury, why, it goes “beyond the pale”.

Not Blind

April 11th, 2011
10:24 am

One of my pet peeves is the line ‘….will be arrested when he is released by the hospital…”. The reason they do this is so the hospital gets stuck with the perp’s hospital bill. If they arrest the perp before taking him to the hospital then the PD is responsible for the bill. IMO this is outrageous . Seized assets should be used to pay the medical care of the criminals.

OJ

April 11th, 2011
10:34 am

Just try getting back a Heisman Trophy from these guys…

Trapped in a Red state

April 11th, 2011
11:16 am

Bob

Thanks for illuminating part of Georgia’s law enforcement’s shortcomings…no accountability.
If you have ever been convicted of a misdemeanor in this state, you are likely to have experienced a violation of your “Civil Rights”.
Back in 1976, Twin City was a well known “speed trap”. Knowing this, I carefully stayed under the posted speed limit while driving through the town, but still got pulled over and ticketed for “speeding”.
I attended the “court hearing” conducted by the Mayor to challenge the ticket and was told that the officer’s testimony could not be challenged.
I contacted former state Representative Bob Lane to complain. He said, he too, had been ticketed in Twin City but they let him off, once they learned of his position. He also informed me that “Misdemeanors” are not appealable to a higher court in Ga.
We citizens are literally at the mercy of countless local, county and state law enforcement who’s testimony is beyond repute. We citizens have naively entrusted our civil liberties to these officials.
Yet each of these locally controlled jurisdictions can hire “anyone” they want, regardless of training.
That is how we get “Bubba” wearing a badge.
Now, with regard to state laws allowing asset seizures to be used as “deemed necessary” by any of these local “officials” and it is small wonder we are not living in a veritable “Police State”.
Finally, while I am all for keeping the roads safe by strongly enforcing DUI laws…there is another side of that story that never gets told.
Those caught DUI have the most cumbersome, costly and unrealistic requirements imaginable to finally regain their license.
The huge financial cost is once again, not designed to rehabilitate the offender, but geared to pad the pockets of special interest…including local law enforcement… Law enforcement, judges and County Court Clerks retirement funds are subsidized by these fines. The offender also pays the salary of their Probation officer, driving school instructor and their Attorney ( a requirement for a DUI), and finally the fine of $1000…minimum. Many are not allowed a limited permit to drive to work even though breath control devices enable them to drive and still protect public safety.
The burden is clearly greater for the poorest violators. Many of them who, without help from family or friends, will chose to drive on a suspended license.
The system is money driven…not offender rehab driven and since there is no empathy from the public, there is no advocate for these offenders.
We should demand “statewide” minimum requirements for all law enforcement and require that all seized assets be turned over to the state and deposited in the general fund. Current laws should be changed to make offender rehab the top priority.
Florida has such a system of credentialing all law enforcement. Why can’t Georgia…

Don't Tread

April 11th, 2011
11:41 am

We’ve tried “offender rehab” for a number of years. Why don’t you take a nice stroll through SE or SW Atlanta after dark and let us know how it’s working. (Assuming you survive.)

Back on topic…”policing for profit” just encourages corruption. I’m all for taking someone’s property if there is reasonable belief that it’s being used to commit crime or was gained by the profits of committing crime. But if the defendant is found not guilty, it should be returned.

So much for the 4th Amendment (and 14th Amendment).

Trapped in a Red state

April 11th, 2011
12:02 pm

Don’t Tread

“We’ve tried offender rehab….”
Actually, we have not. Nathan Deal’s son, who is a judge in Georgia is advocating alternative sentencing for drug and alcohol offenders to reduce cost and effect a much higher success rate in reducing repeat offenders.
Now as for violent crimes…lock um up and throw away the key.

Rightwing Troll

April 11th, 2011
12:32 pm

Great column Bob!

Now how about a column about how state and federal judges literally have powers that are seemingly above the law and our constitution? And I’m not talking about the “activist” ones that hyper partisans scream about. I’m talking to the fact that a judge can, quite literally, lock you up and throw away the key for no discernible reason whatsoever. Like the judge in NY who recently sentenced a juror to life on jury duty, and the judge in PA who turned a juvenile court into a personal cash cow by privatizing the jails and sending most every kid who came in front of him to one of these privatized jails for kickbacks.

Patriot

April 11th, 2011
12:37 pm

Those who don’t understand freedom, and who continue to support the immoral War on Drugs, constantly fail to see how the prosecution of this failed experiment has destroyed the integrity of law enforcement nationwide.

Just last week, tens of thousands of Mexicans took to the streets all over the country demanding an END to the failed War on Drugs. Any coverage by our state-run media? Yeah right. The only people who make more off drugs being illegal than the drug dealers is the government, and their flunky police forces. The war on drugs must be ended if we are ever to restore freedom and liberty in this country.

Keith

April 11th, 2011
1:18 pm

The whole law is unconstitutional. The govt. should have to prove the assets were obtained with money made from crime- as in innocent until proven guilty. The person who has their assets stolen under cover of law by the cops may never be found guilty? Sounds like some kind of Communist Chinese law. This is why the cops want to continue the useless drug war- Profit and empire building.

luangtom

April 11th, 2011
2:09 pm

This law and others like it are open to abuse. It is far too easy for agencies and city councils to avoid the statutes demanding transparency. I can attest to city councils not abiding by the law and taking forfeiture funds and depositing them in general-account funds for uses other than limited by law. Enforcement of the statutes is slim and seldom happens. So, city councils see fit to keep abusing the law and forfeiture monies continue to be used for expenses other than prescribed.

By law, these funds are not to replace budget items. They are to be used by the agencies for expenses due to attaining new equipment not on budget roles, extra training for officers, or any other non-budget items that will enhance the enforcement capabilities of the agency in question or to improve physical properties of the department such as buildimg improvements or renovations not budgeted for. I doubt we will ever see this law followed per its guidleines.

TruthBe

April 11th, 2011
2:19 pm

Law Enforcement = Profressional Criminals in Blue Uniforms. The Police shouldn’ t have the right to steal people’s money in the first place. They ( The Cops ) use their authority to take your property or money without due process of law and we the people have to prove our legal ownership of our property to even get a piece of it back. In Florida the cops will steal your property / money and when you prove it’s legally yours they keep a 20% charge aganist the total as a legal cost. I don’t trust law enforcement anymore. And they have earned it.

SheeshLouise

April 11th, 2011
2:51 pm

Cops and “law enforcement” agencies are CROOKED! Period. End of story. It’s no secret to those who observe or are amongst their dealings a reasonable amount of time.

Peter

April 11th, 2011
2:59 pm

Please Bob…..we are in a Republican state…..what would you expect ?

Come on now…this state paid inflated pricing for new public lands, because as we know real estate prices has been very strong in Georgia.

Plus remember…….. if you are a Married Republican Judge Buying cocaine for your stripper girlfriend, you can retire with full benefits, before being charged, and then get a slap on the hands as a sentence……That would be Republican Family Values.

Remember Bob…Not all men are created equal !

Hillbilly Deluxe

April 11th, 2011
3:20 pm

I’m all for transparency. It’s like shining a light in a dark place; the roaches go scurrying for cover.

BobH

April 11th, 2011
3:50 pm

The asset forfeiture funds may only be used for equipment, training, vehicles, etc. It cannot be used to supplant a municipalities budget.

You know this Bob and you failed to mention it… Shame on you….

ATF

April 11th, 2011
9:34 pm

Hmmm. I wonder if amounts seized by local and county police in Cobb would pay to keep the libraries open.

Where is our Attorney General on this? Can’t he do something to over-see local politicians to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do under state law?

Oh, well. Maybe the Cobb grand jury can stop looking at the schools and pick up on this little tid bit.

No Artificial Flavors

April 11th, 2011
10:20 pm

Even though many jurisdictions do comply with reporting requirements of seized funds there is little accountability over a sheriff or police chief as to what they spend it on. I say this with notable emphasis towards sheriffs. The boards of commissioners cannot legally hold anything over the head of the sheriff to make him or her spend the money as they see fit. The problem is that I have seen sheriffs spend lots of seizure money on law enforcement items but they are nothing but nice-to-haves.

The best change in seizure laws would be to have the sheriff or police chief return all funds from seizures to the commissioners or councils at the end of each year to be included with the audit and then dedicated to the next years general fund appropriation to fund operations of the law enforcement entity. This effectively rolls back the millage rate for the taxpayers (and can be shown as such) and takes the practice of spending on goodies and Vipers each year out of the equation. It may also head of layoffs or furloughs for the very people that protect and serve.

-NAF

Marlboro Man

April 11th, 2011
11:18 pm

Abuse of power is as bad a crime there is, as it undermines the concept of justice.

[...] Law enforcement slush funds?Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog)Finally, while I am all for keeping the roads safe by strongly enforcing DUI laws…there is another side of that story that never gets told. Those caught DUI have the most cumbersome, costly and unrealistic requirements imaginable to finally regain … [...]

jm

April 12th, 2011
1:05 pm

[...] Law enforcement slush funds?Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog)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, … [...]

[...] It’s called civil asset forfeiture and under the law, Georgia law enforcement agencies are allowed to take and spend seized money or property which is believed to have been obtained illegally. For example, officers may seize sizable amounts of cash in a drug raid and keep that for their department. The problem is, very few law Georgia enforcement agencies are reporting these funds as required by law. According to a recent report, the Fulton County Police and Sheriff’s departments, and the Atlanta Police Department, were among … [...]

Lee

April 13th, 2011
7:21 pm

It is said that the two groups most opposed to ending prohibition were the bootleggers and the cops. Sadly, we didn’t learn our lesson about creating black markets where there were none before and entered into an ill-advised “war on drugs.”

Deja vu

Let’s face it, law enforcement is BIG BUSINESS nowadays and it chews up people and cash with equal verocity. The only way to end this assault on our liberties is to require local law enforcement to remit 100% of revenue generated by fines, citations, and confiscations to the state.

Only then will law enforcement begin to place an emphasis on public safety instead of sitting on the side a a four lane highway where the speed limit drops from 65-55-45 mph within one mile and writing citations to generate revenue.

With regards to the article, we do have this little thing called due process and innocent until proven guilty in a court of law by a jury of our peers.