In Georgia, as in some other states, law enforcement can take property from a person if they suspect it's connected to a crime, but they do not necessarily have to charge or convict that person with that crime. It's a process known as civil asset forfeiture. According to Georgia law, to keep the property, the government must show with a "preponderance of the evidence" that it's connected to a crime.
Law enforcement agencies say civil forfeiture is necessary to fight and stop criminal activity, but critics argue the process violates people’s liberties and can create a profit motive. Some Georgia lawmakers have been trying to overhaul the practice this year.
Camden County, Georgia
In 2012, Alda Gentile, her son and baby grandson had been traveling from Florida to New York when law enforcement stopped her and seized more than $11,500 in cash.
Gentile, who’d been working as a limo driver in New York, said she had wanted to scope out condos in Florida and took the cash with her. But after failing to find a place they liked at first, Gentile said she and her family decided to drive back home.
According to court documents, law enforcement stopped them across the Florida border in Camden County, Georgia, allegedly for speeding. Gentile said officers questioned why she had the money and asked if she was a drug dealer. Then law enforcement seized her cash, though she was not charged with a crime.
“I was so baffled at the whole thing, and I remember thinking that ‘You guys are not police officers – you’re just pirates with badges. That’s what you remind me of right now,’” Gentile said.
Attorneys for the officer who seized the cash said in court filings that there was probable cause from the alleged facts, including the amount of money being carried, the fact that Interstate-95 was a known drug corridor and that a drug dog had alerted them.
According to court records, Gentile got her money back a week later and eventually sued the police. The case was settled, according to her attorney.
Reforming Civil Forfeiture Laws
Last year, the Georgia Legislature passed some reforms that require law enforcement agencies to be more transparent about the assets they've seized and how the money is used. Under the changes, law enforcement are required to submit reports to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia about the assets that were forfeited.
State Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, said it was a good first step, but fell short of requiring a conviction before the government can keep property. He introduced legislation, HB 832, this year that would do just that.
“You’re innocent until proven guilty,” Turner said. “I think it goes against our core values of due process. This is not a new idea; this is something as old as our nation."
Turner’s bill never made out of committee this year. It faced opposition from those in law enforcement who say civil forfeiture is necessary to stop criminal activity.
Turner said most of the civil asset forfeiture proceedings may not be valuable enough to fight the government for it in the legal system.
“So you might see a thousand dollars seized, but it would cost you 10 times that to go and hire an attorney to get those thousand dollars back so it doesn’t make sense for somebody to defend themselves in that way,” he said.
An Effective Tool or Profit Motive?
Some critics argue the civil forfeiture practice, however, can create a profit motive, since law enforcement can use that money in their departments.
“Now, everyone agrees that law enforcement should be fully funded,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that has worked for civil forfeiture reform. “The question is whether or not law enforcement should have a financial incentive in taking people’s property.”
Law enforcement disagree that the program is used because of a profit incentive.
"I can tell you that the most effective tool we have in dealing with criminals who make money from criminal activity are our asset forfeiture laws," said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, past president of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, who opposed Turner's bill.
"It virtually is the only thing that hurts a drug dealer," he said.
He said sheriffs and police officers who abuse the practice of civil forfeiture and don't follow the law should go to prison. Law enforcement officers must have probable cause or a preponderance of evidence before a civil forfeiture can take place.
For those who may not have been involved in criminal activity, there are remedies for people to get their money back, said Louis Dekmar, chief of police in LaGrange, Georgia, and second vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“I can tell you that professional law enforcement and policing is committed to doing right by its citizens but also at the same time, ensuring that its communities are protected,” Dekmar said.
Rep. Turner said he’ll try again next year, if re-elected, to change Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws with his legislation.