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A local sheriff election in Butts County, Georgia, caught my eye today: Candidate Gary Long, Republican, published this ad in the Wednesday, Oct. 17th, 2012 Jackson Progress-Argus:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As it turns out, Gary Long’s campaign published this ad based on incorrect information it received from the county:

On Thursday, Butts County officials released a statement noting that the reports had been filed, and that Long had been erroneously told otherwise.

County officials said Long filed an open records request for four years of seized-asset reports with the county clerk’s office, and was told the county hadn’t received them.

While this release quells the disclosure issues that Mr. Long raises in his ad, the audits do reveal some misconduct:

For the past three weeks, a Macon accounting firm has been conducting a forensic audit of accounts at the Butts County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Gene Pope told the Jackson Progress-Argus on Monday.

Pope said the forensic audit is part of an investigation into money discovered by county auditors to be apparently missing from sheriff’s office accounts. He said more than $50,000 from various accounts was unaccounted for when county auditors reviewed the books, in the wake of the transfer of a sheriff’s office employee who oversaw the records and the cash.

Above and beyond the particular scandal in Butts County, Georgia’s forfeiture laws are in dire need of reform. Indeed, the Institute for Justice gave Georgia’s forfeiture law a D- in its “Policing for Profit” report:

Georgia has terrible civil forfeiture laws and uses equitable sharing extensively.  Under state law, depending on the property, the government need only establish probable cause or a preponderance of the evidence that the property was connected to illegal activity to forfeit it.  You bear the burden of showing that the property is not derived from illegal activity or that you are an innocent owner.  Even worse, law enforcement keeps 100 percent of the proceeds from any sales of seized property, which creates a strong incentive for law enforcement to seize property even in situations where it may not be warranted.

Georgia’s forfeiture regime is in fact so terrible that the Institute for Justice decided a state-specific investigation was warranted, releasing the findings in their 2011 paper “Forfeiting Accountability“.

Civil forfeiture is the power of law enforcement to seize cash, cars, homes and other property on the mere suspicion of criminal activity. Unlike criminal forfeiture, the owner need not be convicted to lose property. Indeed, a key problem with Georgia’s law is that it forces owners to prove their innocence to get their property back, effectively treating people caught up in forfeiture proceedings as guilty until proven innocent. Worse, the law enforcement agencies that take the property receive 100 percent of the proceeds for their own use, providing a strong incentive to pursue property instead of criminals.

Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws do have one good feature: They require law enforcement agencies to annually report forfeiture proceeds and expenditures to the local authority that provides their funding. Local governments are then required to make these records publicly available online.

These reporting requirements ought to serve as a minimal check on forfeiture practices and potential abuse. They should also prevent forfeiture funds from becoming off-the-books slush funds through which law enforcement agencies can selffinance, exempted from democratic controls.

Ultimately, Georgia’s forfeiture law will require a more substantial overhaul than just the enforcement of transparency provisions in the law. Indeed, it appears simply forcing compliance with the law will require vigorous oversight; last year, Georgia citizen Josiah Neff filed suit to obtain forfeiture records from Atlanta and Fulton Counties. Mike Klein at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation describes what a full reform package looks like:

The Foundation and Institute proposed a three-tier rewrite of Georgia asset forfeiture law.  First, eliminate civil asset forfeiture and replace it with just criminal asset forfeiture.  “No one convicted of a crime should keep the ill-gotten gains from that activity but the government should have the burden of convicting you first before you lose final title to your property,” McGrath said.

Second, cash proceeds from asset forfeiture sales should be transferred to the state general fund, rather than be retained inside the budgets of local law enforcement agencies.

Third, the legislature should ensure innocent owners will have their personal property returned to them in a short period of time.  The Institute has documented numerous Georgia cases in which cash or real property was seized from individuals who had to file costly lawsuits to regain their property.  The value of those seizures was a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars.

 The only addition I’d make is to eliminate access to the federal Equitable Sharing program, which allows state law enforcement to take their seizures to federal agencies for a kickback instead of following state law. Indeed, Georgia law enforcement appear to be increasingly dependent on this federal channel, receiving some $30 million a year in Equitable Sharing revenues in 2011 and 2010.

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