Sheriff to Cowetans: Oppose asset forfeiture changes
by Sarah Fay Campbell
Coweta County Sheriff Mike Yeager is urging Cowetans to contact their state legislators and ask them to vote “no” on House Bill 1, which would make changes to the rules regarding seizures and forfeitures.
HB 1 was introduced last year. A concerted effort by the Georgia Sheriff’s Association stopped progress on the bill, which was withdrawn by its sponsor, Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs.
Since last year’s session, Willard has made several changes to the bill, rendering it much less ambitious, and the bill passed out of Willard’s Judiciary Non-Civil Committee on Feb. 7.
A letter from Yeager was posted Monday on the Coweta Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.
Yeager says in the letter that last year’s version of HB 1 “proposed draconian changes in the manner we in law enforcement seize the assets of criminals, particularly those engaged in the sale and trafficking of illicit drugs. Had it passed into law, it would have made it far more difficult for law enforcement to take away the profits from their sordid enterprises.”
Yeager says in the letter that there have been some beneficial changes to the bill since last year. However, “it still unnecessarily complicates the state’s existing seizure and forfeiture laws, which have been repeatedly” upheld as constitutional by state and federal appellate courts.
“Law enforcement's ability to seize the assets and profits of drug dealers continues to be an effective and valuable tool in the police community,” Yeager says in the letter. “Anything that degrades that tool will only enrich those involved in dealing drugs in our community. The property and money taken from innocent working taxpayers in burglaries, robberies and thefts goes straight to the drug dealer,” Yeager says. “The drug dealer pays no income tax. ... He or she simply profits and pushes more poison to profit more."
The original version of the bill would have required law enforcement to meet a higher standard of proof in showing that money or items seized were being used in the furtherance of a crime, and would have required a judge’s ruling for forfeitures of $5,000 and above, instead of those $25,000 and above.
The newer version of the bill leaves in place the old standard and the old monetary limits.
But it requires law enforcement agencies to file more extensive reports about assets seized, and increases penalties for agencies that don’t file correct and timely reports.
The new bill would also make it easier for property owners to fight seizures in court and would keep money from going directly to individual district attorneys’ offices.
Under the proposal, any district attorney office’s share of seized assets would go into a trust fund overseen by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council.
The Institute for Justice gives Georgia’s civil forfeiture rules a D-. Georgia is one of five states — all in the South — that receive the D-, the lowest ranking.
Georgia’s laws do not require that someone be convicted of a crime — or even arrested — before their assets, such as cash, vehicles, and property, can be seized and forfeited.