February 21, 2013

More scrutiny, less conflict of interest

Each year, law enforcement agencies across Georgia seize millions of dollars in cash and property from individuals who have never even been charged, much less convicted of a crime. They keep it for their own use, and there’s little oversight of how they use it.

That needs to change. Ideally, law enforcement should not be able to seize any cash or property from anyone who hasn’t been convicted of a crime, and they should have to go to court to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the property they want was connected to the crime that person was convicted of. As it stands now, it’s up to the owners of seized property to prove it isn’t connected to a crime.

House Bill 1, which the Legislature is currently considering, doesn’t go that far. But it does impose some common sense rules on law enforcement agencies. For instance, it would deny agencies the proceeds of forfeiture if they fail to make public annual reports specifying what property and cash they seize and how they use it. It would also deny them the right to the proceeds of forfeiture if they have a record of misusing forfeitures.

The bill also raises the government’s burden of proof to having to show “clear and convincing evidence that seized property is subject to forfeiture.” Under current law, law enforcement merely needs to show a “preponderance of the evidence” to seize property.

HB 1 has some high-powered support. It was introduced by Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. And it is co-sponsored by Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, the House majority whip, and Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, the House minority leader.

But law enforcement, including the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, opposes the bill. It’s disappointing that law enforcement officials oppose public scrutiny of how they obtain and spend part of their funds. But it isn’t surprising. Sheriffs are still elected officials, and politicians often prefer to do their business out of the sight of the public.

Fifty years ago, Georgia ended the fee system. Lawmakers realized that there was an inherent conflict of interest in allowing sheriffs to be paid based on the number of people they incarcerated and the amount of fines their offices generated. Current forfeiture rules also create such a conflict of interest. At the very least, the state needs to require law enforcement officials to be more open in how they use seized property, and it needs to impose strong penalties on those who don’t play by the rules.

Text Only
  • Successes continue at Dalton State College

    These are exciting times for our local college, Dalton State, both on campus and off.

    April 16, 2014

  • Mark Millican: The birds hushed their singing

    For the uninitiated, that line is from what many consider the greatest rock song of all time, “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin.

    April 15, 2014

  • Misty Watson: When blood sugar drops, anger rises

    It wouldn’t have taken 107 married couples and 21 days to figure out that being hungry makes people angry.

    April 15, 2014

  • Working for the man

    You may be one of the many Americans who will rush to file their income taxes today. But you may not yet have earned enough money to pay all of the taxes that will be imposed on you this year.

    April 15, 2014

  • Letter: The glib tongue, the fake smile

    A recent Daily Citizen column by Walter Williams will both awaken and frighten any thinking person who claims even a smidgen of knowledge about — or belief in —  either the Bible, world history or current events.

    April 15, 2014

  • College soccer team would bring local talent together

    Dreams of combining the best soccer players from all local high schools into one team finally could come true.

    April 13, 2014

  • Letter: Primaries feature many choices

    Many people are confused this year about the May 20 Election Day. Unfortunately, very few voters in Whitfield County actually go to the polls for a primary election. But this means any increase in participation can have a significant impact.

    April 12, 2014

  • Letter: Hooper for Murray chief magistrate

    Thanks to all the wonderful people and friends who backed me for District 1 Murray County Board of Education. You sure showed a lot of support. Sorry I had to step down due to my and my wife’s health. I am a lot better now.

    April 12, 2014

  • Judicial dispute could have been avoided

    Judicial elections in Whitfield and Murray counties tend to be low key. In fact, we can’t recall the last time an incumbent judge on the Conasauga Superior Court, which cover the two counties, has even faced a challenger.

    April 12, 2014

  • Citizen of the Week: Jonathan Rose

    Running for exercise is a popular hobby among many local residents, but at least one racing enthusiast plans to take his fun a step further today.

    April 11, 2014

AP Video