Civil forfeiture threatens the property rights of all Americans. These laws allow government officials to seize your home, car, cash or other property upon the mere suspicion that it has been used or involved in criminal activity.
In an attempt to ensure civil forfeiture is subject to public scrutiny, Georgia law requires local law enforcement agencies to annually itemize and report all property obtained through forfeiture, and how it is used, to local governing authorities.
But many–perhaps most–local Georgia law enforcement agencies fail to issue these forfeiture reports. Today, the Institute for Justice issued a report of its own: Forfeiting Accountability: Georgia’s Hidden Civil Forfeiture Funds. It finds that among a random sample of 20 law enforcement agencies, only two were reporting as required. Of 15 major agencies in Georgia population centers, only one produced the required report. Yet federal data show Georgia agencies taking in millions through forfeiture.
Civil forfeiture expert Anthony Sanders, an Institute for Justice attorney involved in today’s lawsuit, explains:
Law enforcement should follow the law. Yet many Georgia law enforcement agencies simply choose to ignore Georgia law. This is a breach of the public trust and a betrayal of taxpayers.
Predictably, Big Government + Civil Forfeiture = Abuse. We found a Georgia sheriff that spent $90,000 in forfeiture funds to purchase a Dodge Viper, and a Georgia district attorney’s office using forfeiture funds to purchase football tickets.
IJ Client Anna Cuthrell cannot believe that law enforcement has been allowed to keep forfeited property and not report it to anybody. As she puts it:
The purpose of requiring law enforcement agencies to report forfeiture proceeds is to make their budgets more transparent. Through failing to account for this money law enforcement effectively creates its own slush fund.
Anna teamed up with Ryan Van Meter, Joseph Kidd, Josiah Neff and Tsvetelin Tsonevski, all taxpaying residents of Atlanta and Fulton County. Specifically, their lawsuit seeks to force the head officers of the Atlanta Police Department, Fulton County Police Department and Fulton County Sheriff Department–all of which regularly fail to produce mandated forfeiture reports–to disclose the property they have seized under applicable Georgia forfeiture statues along with how they have used that property.
As a practicing attorney, Ryan Van Meter understands how his state’s civil forfeiture laws threaten his and his fellow citizens’ property rights. He also understands how law enforcement flouts the minimal reporting protections Georgia law provides:
Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to private property rights in our nation today. Law enforcement can take your property without even charging you with a crime. For law enforcement to fail to even account for what they seize only makes this already bad problem worse.
The Institute for Justice also released a comprehensive report, Policing for Profit, which examines and grades the civil forfeiture laws of all 50 states and the national government. How did Georgia score? Check out the answer here.
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