Great Beyond Foter.com CC BY-NC-SAGreat Beyond Foter.com CC BY-NC-SAThe Georgia Sheriff’s Association is worried that a bill purporting to reform the state’s asset forfeiture laws would cripple law enforcement’s ability—nay, will—to fight crime.

From the Newton Citizen:

"I can categorically say that the provisions of this bill will only benefit criminals and the lawyers who represent them," wrote [Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, president of the Sheriffs' Association]. ... “If it is passed, it will literally demoralize the law enforcement community to a point where we will see little public benefit in enforcing the law when it comes to drug dealers and other criminal entrepreneurs."

Speaking of the law, Sheriff Sills' department has not released the annual forfeiture reports that Georgia law requires—despite hauling in $1 million-plus over the course of his tenure. Sadly, that’s all too common. Only 58 of the 628 law enforcement agencies in the state filed a report for 2011 according to a recent study by the Institute for Justice,* a libertarian public interest law firm.

But back to HB 1, the bill in question, which would so demoralize police. The sheriffs interpret it to mean the profits from forfeited property would go to municipalities—earmarked for law enforcement purposes—instead of going directly to the agency that seized the property. By my reading, however, the sheriffs are just wrong. Instead, the bill seems to leave the present arrangement—virtually all proceeds go to law enforcement—mostly intact but for a proviso allowing, but not requiring, municipalities to take control of seized houses and land.

The bill does not fix any of the main problems with asset forfeiture in Georgia: the government can take property without convicting anyone of a crime, law enforcement can keep what it seizes, and reporting requirements are vague and frequently ignored.

The bill does increase the government’s burden of proof (from preponderance of the evidence to clear and convincing). But that only helps property owners once their case reaches court—most don’t. Often the forfeited property is worth less than the cost of a lawyer.

According to IJ’s study, the average value of seized property reported by law enforcement agencies is $1,300. The median value of the same is a mere $647. This innocent owner spent $12,000 on a lawyer, though a minimal amount of actual investigation would have revealed the confiscated property was earned legally.

*I am a former employee of the Institute for Justice.