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.

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