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Georgia Lawmaker Introduces Bill To Require Conviction for Asset Forfeiture

Georgia passed some asset forfeiture reforms in 2015. Can it join 14 other states that require a conviction before police can keep people's stuff?

Robin Rayne Nelson/ZUMA Press/NewscomRobin Rayne Nelson/ZUMA Press/NewscomAfter years of work and compromise, Georgia passed modest asset forfeiture reforms in 2015 that strengthened protections for property owners and required law enforcement to release standardized annual reports on their asset forfeiture activity.

Republican state representative Scot Turner believe those reforms didn't go far enough. Turner introduced a bill, H.B. 505, in February that would require law enforcement in Georgia to obtain a criminal conviction for the state to keep seized assets.

If Turner's bill becomes law the state would join 14 others requiring a criminal conviction in some or all asset forfeiture cases. Nebraska, New Mexico, and North Carolina have abolished civil asset forfeiture altogether.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws in other states, police can seize property they believe is connected to criminal activity, even if the owners are not charged with a crime.

Law enforcement groups say asset forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by targeting their illicit gains. Police seize millions of dollars and tons of narcotics during highway traffic stops every year.

However, civil liberties groups from across the political spectrum say innocent property owners are victims of lax safeguards, poor transparency, and the perverse profit incentives of asset forfeiture without ever being charged, much less convicted, of a crime.

"If my bill becomes law, [police] will still have that tool in the toolbox," Turner, who represents a suburb to the north of Atlanta, tells Reason. "It's just that they can't immediately start using the money. They have to go through criminal proceedings first. That restores the concept of innocent until proven guilty. I mean, that's a fundamental American promise, that you have rights that are intrinsic to you by your very nature as a human being. We recognize that as a country. That's an American promise. We break that promise when we engage in this type of activity."

Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs at the limited-government advocacy group FreedomWorks, says Turner's bill "restores due process and protects innocent individuals whose property may be seized by requiring a criminal conviction."

"Georgia took a step in the right direction a couple of years ago with the passage of HB 233," Pye says. "Still, that law is lacking in protections. Property can still be permanently seized by law enforcement based on a low evidentiary standard, without ever arresting, charging or convicting the owner of a crime. As someone who works on this issue, this is standard law enforcement should have to meet. As a Georgian, it's time for my state to get on the right side of the issue."

Even with bipartisan support, Turner says getting his law passed will still be a heavy lift. Law enforcement groups like the Georgia Sheriffs Association, whose membership can make or break local politicians, have opposed restrictions on asset forfeiture. Turner vividly remembers watching sheriffs from around Georgia file into the statehouse visitors gallery to watch the legislature debate the 2015 bill.

The Georgia Sheriffs Association was not immediately available for comment.

Legislators may not be thrilled to take up the issue again. But it was law enforcement opposition to reform that Turner says got him fired up about the issue in the first place.

A 2013 Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation highlighted the case of Alda Gentile, a New York grandmother who was driving to Florida with her son and one-year-old grandson. She had roughly $11,000 in cash in the car, money she said she had saved for a down payment on a condo. After she was pulled over for speeding, Georgia police seized every cent of Gentile's money, even though no drugs were found.

Turner also cited the case of former Atlanta Hawks basketball player Mike Scott. In 2015, Banks County Sheriff's deputy Brent Register pulled over Scott for allegedly speeding. A search of Scott's car turned up marijuana, ecstasy and more than $1,000 in cash, which Register seized under asset forfeiture laws.

Using public records, Scott's attorneys showed Register's reasons for pulling over Scott were impossible to square with the facts. Records showed Register had made 1,400 traffic stops in 2015 and 2016, but only issued eight traffic tickets. All but three of the 47 people Register arrested were black in a county that is 90 percent white.

A judge ruled Register had racially profiled Scott and declared the evidence against him inadmissible in court. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Scott, and the Combs County Sheriff's Department fired Register shortly after.

"He was targeting, frankly," Turner says, "because he thought these were people who might have some cash on them that they could seize, and it was such a small amount that they wouldn't have the means to protect themselves."

But the only reason Register got caught was because he accidentally pulled over someone who could afford a good lawyer.

How many other tainted traffic stops and seizures went unchallenged, Turner wonders: "They uncovered what should have been a giant scandal."

Photo Credit: Robin Rayne Nelson/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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  • Rich||

    Would someone *kindly* explain why "asset forfeiture" is not unconstitutional on the face of it?

  • AlgerHiss||

    Yes, that is precisely the thing: Why are we even discussing this?

    If "asset forfeiture" is a gray issue, then we're truly screwed. EVERYTHING is up for grabs and this "constitutional rights" thing is a joke.

  • gaoxiaen||

    DUH! You're starting to figure it out. Or maybe I have to recalibrate my sarcometer. Whatever, my dinner (Chinese takeout of course) is in the microwave. Offal uber alles.

  • Hank Stamper||

    Because they charge the property which has no due process rights?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Government agents do not want to give people they steal $1000 from, back $1000 in just compensation.
    Amendment V
    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

  • gaoxiaen||

    I was thinking about this specific Amendment today. I must be psychic, or psychotic. After many shots of (Costco Silver, great value) tequila, I can't (or can't be bothered) to elucidate on this.

  • markm23||

    The relevant phrase is not the one you highlighted, but "nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

    The problem is that the Supreme Court has both allowed the pretense of a suit against the property, and allowed the legislature to define "due process" where it comes to property: A much lower burden of proof is allowed - in some states, it's not even preponderance of evidence, but probable cause - the same weak evidence that allows searching your house for more evidence could be used to seize it even in the absence of finding anything! The government is not required to supply a lawyer to those that can't afford one or to compensate those that win the case for legal fees. The court that hears the case can be difficult to even find, with very short deadlines for filing.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Doing it kindly would be impossible for me.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Then please, vote for your friendly neighborhood Libertarian candidate. LP is to looters like Raid is to cockroaches.

  • See.More||

  • colorblindkid||

    Yeah, when will one of these cases get back to the SCOTUS. I'm pretty sure the ruling with this current court would, at a minimum, put more restrictions on the practice.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Think of it as a loophole that replaces endangered bribery. Bribery is really hard to conceal with all the cameras and digital recorders floating about. It's hardly safe to gun down innocent civilians without someone using a video to make mock trial impunity an expensive chore. But with asset forfeiture, First Responders™ can offset union dues with a little looting on the side. The victims are often the same godless hippies, messkins and naygurs George HW Bush wanted to put to death anyway, so no big repercussions. Did that help?

  • Art Gecko||

    It is unconstitutional. Now shut up or we'll take your house.

  • Proud Infidel||

    Because FYTW

  • AlgerHiss||

    "would require law enforcement in Georgia to obtain a criminal conviction for the state to keep seized assets."

    No. Not good enough. I don't care if a conviction is obtained, NO assets are taken unless those specific assets were stolen in the first place, and even then, returned to the rightful owner. No government entity is to receive ANY assets. Period.

    The original intent was to go after the likes of Pablo Escobar. But then, all of a sudden, everyone is Pablo Escobar.

  • DaveSs||

    The origins of asset forfeiture go back farther than that.

    All the way back to the 1790s, and then applied in cases of smuggling or piracy where the owner of the vessel involved was beyond the reach of US law enforcement and thus could not be tried for a crime.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Yep.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Those libel laws, whereby the US confiscated large vessels over beer and wine in international waters, led to a diplomatic crisis with England in 1924.

  • Mitsima||

    The original intent was to go after the likes of Pablo Escobar. But then, all of a sudden, everyone is Pablo Escobar.

    And yet many people still think that Net Neutrality is a good idea. People never learn. Some days it just doesn't pay to crawl out of the bottle.

  • Finrod||

    The government that is big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have.

  • gaoxiaen||

    I'm living in Taiwan, where people buy houses and new cars with cash, and credit cards are somewhat new. People here think that I'm bullshitting them when I tell them about this.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Most people here consider gold as a long-term investment.

  • Mitsima||

    A German friend was incensed when the EU stopped printing 500euro notes. He raged that cash is freedom itself; that it permitted freedom of movement, choice, and association without gov't observation or control. It's one of the few things we agree on, politically speaking.

  • Finrod||

    I still want the United States to put $500 bills back into circulation. They're worth about what $100 was in 1968 when larger bills were discontinued,

  • Longtobefree||

    Well, then, according to the feds, you are a drug dealer.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Germany was the world's largest exporter of heroin before and after WWI. Its currency became worthless during the Harding Administration narcotic scandal just before the drug was banned in These States. There were other factors at work, but banning beer made US heroin consumption jump by something like 600% despite the Harrison Act.

  • Myshkin78||

    You plebs and your Constitution. If you don't struggle it won't hurt as bad. There's a right for ya.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Giant scandal is an understatement. Look at the timing! March 18 of 2015 is when the State Department unveiled its Economy-Destroying Angel in the shape of the 233-page International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. As the report was released a flash crash wrecked the value of the dollar to an extent that caused even newer laws to sprout like deadly mushrooms to throttle off trading lest such evidence leak again. But the dope farmers in Georgia understood all too well that the ramping up of asset forfeiture by the faith-based fanatics with which George Waffen Bush had backed the federal bureaucracy caused the crash of 2007. The crashes of May 6, 2010 (confiscating bank accounts owned by Colombians) and this INCSR crash of 2015 were the leper's bell to which Georgia dared not turn a deaf ear.

  • Art Gecko||

    "Turner introduced a bill, H.B. 505, in February that would require law enforcement in Georgia to obtain a criminal conviction for the state to keep seized assets."

    Not far enough. A conviction should be obtained BEFORE assets are seized.

  • Longtobefree||

    Why are 'laws' needed to protect constitutional RIGHTS from the government?
    So far, my research has not turned up a supreme court ruling on forfeiture before/without conviction. The one I fond the most was over drugs, and there actually was a conviction.
    Fourth and Fifth amendments should apply here, without much more than a cursory glance.
    But then, the second and first are shot to hell already, so the rest should fall soon.
    Welcome to the revolution.

  • GamerFromJump||

    So, it needed to be written down what should be patently obvious to begin.

    I agree the law doesn't go far enough. There's no proviso for letting victims shoot the blue-clad thieves in the head. Or is that an "emanation" from the Second Amendment?

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