By Pam O’Dell
Liberals and conservatives have allied themselves to fight for significant changes in Georgia’s civil forfeiture law. These laws stipulate the circumstances and procedures required when law enforcement officers and district attorneys confiscate property related to a crime.
Georgia Representative Wendell Willard, the bill's author, presided over a contentious hearing on February 11, at the state capitol. Proponents of HB1 contend that the law fails to protect innocent citizens, create incentives for law enforcement agencies to pad their own budgets, and fails to provide the necessary transparency to reveal inappropriate seizures. Opponents argue that the law is sufficient and that civil forfeiture is vital to eroding the power of drug rings and other forms of organized crime.
Prior to the hearing, Willard convened a task force consisting of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Georgia Defense Lawyers Association.
The task force worked for more than two years to address a problem Williard says occurs throughout the state, but drew his attention when it occurred in his district. Willard, who has acquired a reputation for championing civil liberty and property rights legislation (most notably Georgia’s eminent domain law) is the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee through which the bill must pass.
During the hearing, Howard Sills, President of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, told the audience: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” During a subsequent interview with the O’ Dell Report, Sills said he knows the law “like the back of my hand” noting that the law has “been repeatedly upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court or the Georgia Court of Appeals.”
He referred to the hearing as a “dog and pony show” and criticized Willard for “changing the plan of salvation” contending that: “Over ninety percent of seizures are drug related.” Sills, who has served as Putnam County Sheriff for over sixteen years and has worked in law enforcement for almost 40 years, considers civil forfeiture a necessary tool in controlling the drug epidemic which has grown tremendously in rural areas.
Sills said he can’t recollect one instance in which innocent civilians have had their property taken. “No sheriff in this state is going to try to take grandma’s car away. "We might send grandma a letter tellin’ her how her grandson was using her car, but we aren’t going to risk our reputation trying to take something from a citizen.” We aren’t thieves, we fight thieves“, Sills said.
“We are accused of a profit motive to buy new[patrol] cars, but what about the profiteering done by drug dealers? " Referring to the illegal drug trade, Sills said: “It is the most profitable business in America, it is[a] high profit, no expenses, no taxes business-we can’t compete with them [financially]”
While he concedes that state-wide reporting (as required by law) needs to be improved upon, he notes that current statute specifies that local governments (not law enforcement entities) are ultimately, responsible for that reporting. According to Willard, HB1 “puts teeth” in the reporting requirement- penalizing those failing to report by disallowing seizures for a two years.
According to Lee Mc Grath, Legislative Counsel for the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based property rights group with libertarian roots, Georgia is the poster child for civic forfeiture gone wild. McGrath said Georgia’s law is “one of the five worst in the nation, and the very worst in the South.” He believes Willard has not gone far enough to protect citizens.
McGrath would like to see Georgia adopt a North Carolina-style law which meets the “fundamental criteria” of requiring that all seizures be accompanied by a conviction and that all monies seized go into the state’s General fund. Noteworthy is that fact that Georgia’s Constitution prohibits the ‘ear marking’ of such funds and, in tight budget years, they usually go to continue basic (and often un-related) services.