As your Sheriff, I must pay attention to legislation being proposed in Atlanta to see the impact that it may have on the safety and well being of our citizens here in Dougherty County. The media does a great job of spotting bills that may spark controversy and bringing them to the public’s attention. There is one bill, however, that seems to be running under the radar of public attention; one that may have a significant impact on you.
House Bill 1, also called the Georgia Uniform Civil Forfeiture Procedure Act, has been introduced by Rep. Wendell Willard. It is a 90 plus page bill that consolidates all civil asset forfeiture actions in the areas of gambling, liquor, RICO, and drugs into one procedure and transfers condemned property and cash directly to the county government or municipal corporation rather than allowing the assets to be used at the discretion of law enforcement.
I have several concerns about this bill. House Bill 1 makes it more difficult to seize assets. In court, the burden of proof is always on the state. This bill raises the burden of proof in asset forfeiture cases from “preponderance” to “clear and convincing evidence.” That makes the State’s job more difficult and will surely result in fewer forfeitures.
Currently, seized property or cash may be used by the law enforcement agency that made the case against the offender. As your Sheriff, I have used such funds to purchase equipment for our investigators, pay for a website to better track sex offenders, repair damage from lightning strikes at the jail, and replace equipment that failed during the year that was not planned for in our budget. I have also used these funds to pay for training in specialized areas that are not state mandated. The only other alternative would have been to use funds from our operational budget, which comes from the county’s general fund. Making these purchases using seized funds means that we didn’t have to use tax dollars.
House Bill 1 would change that. Real property would end up in a land bank and unusable by law enforcement. Seized cash could be funneled back to the law enforcement agency, but the amount would be limited. The bottom line is that House Bill 1 will result in fewer assets being condemned through the forfeiture process, and law enforcement only getting a portion of those that do. Not having that resource for tax-free funding of equipment will require law enforcement agencies to place a greater burden on the tax-payers.
There is one other aspect of House Bill 1 that concerns me. With the current state of the American penal system, non-violent crimes often get the shortest sentences. This includes drug-crimes. Often, it seems like the forfeiture of assets is the most meaningful punishment that we can give to a drug dealer. Seeing their houses and cars being seized and used by law enforcement has much more of an impact than spending a few months in prison.
I am not alone in this opinion. Last week, as the State House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on this bill, I stood with over half of the Sheriffs of Georgia to oppose this legislation. I see this bill as a step in the wrong direction and encourage you to learn more about House Bill 1 and contact your state representative to let them know how you feel about it.