published Sunday, November 18th, 2012

Georgia lawmaker seeks property-seizure reform

Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson.
Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson.
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A Georgia lawmaker wants to limit the power of law officers to seize cash, cars, homes and other property from people who are under suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.

The state's civil forfeiture laws are outdated and complicated and there is a concern that people's property rights aren't being protected, said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, the author of the bill.

People's property sometimes is seized after an alleged crime. To get it back, they often must attend a forfeiture hearing and prove they weren't involved in a crime, Willard said.

But the lawmaker, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said prosecutors instead should have to prove the property owner is, in fact, linked to the crime.

"It's not to try and protect criminals," Willard said. "But it's for innocent parties to have the ability to protect their property."

Willard said he formed a Forfeiture Rewrite Work Group to review the law after Georgia got a "D-" grade in a national report on civil forfeiture by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning research group.

Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said police normally seize property for drug operations and gambling or organized crime. There are many criteria limiting seizures. For example, he said, police couldn't seize a man's car if he was smoking a marijuana cigarette, because that's less than 4 ounces of the drug.

But Ringgold defense attorney McCracken Poston said it jeopardizes a suspect's Fifth Amendment rights to have a civil forfeiture case at the same time as a criminal case.

If the defendant takes the Fifth in a civil case, meaning he exercises his right not to testify, that can affect whether he gets his property back, Poston said.

"It's usually a lose-lose proposition," he said.

Another change Willard is proposing is to bring more seizure cases into court.

For property worth less than $25,000, the prosecutor must publicize the seizure and the owner has 30 days to file a claim. If the owner doesn't file after a second notice, the property is forfeited to the state. If the property is worth more than $25,000, the court automatically hears the case.

But the proposed bill would lower to $5,000 the property automatically entitled to court oversight, Willard said.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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