Civil asset forfeiture laws can prove costly for innocent Georgians

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, Georgia authorities may confiscate personal property without proving that a crime occurred or the owner was involved.

Many people facing criminal charges in Atlanta take solace in the fact that they are considered innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, when it comes to civil forfeiture of personal assets suspected to play a role in criminal activity, Georgia law establishes remarkably different standards. The state's expansive forfeiture laws may leave many people at risk for property loss, even if they have done nothing wrong.

Low standards of proof

Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement authorities to confiscate property involved in illicit activity, such as gang activity and drug crimes. To seize property, Georgia authorities only need to show a preponderance of evidence - rather than clear and convincing evidence - that the property was used in illegal activity, according to the Institute for Justice. A variety of personal assets can be seized under the Georgia Code, including:

  • Cash and negotiable instruments.
  • Securities and accounts.
  • Personal property, including real estate and vehicles.
  • Interests and contractual rights over enterprises a person owns or runs.

Once the property is seized, authorities can keep it without convicting or even charging the owner with any crimes. Instead, the owner is responsible for showing that the property was not involved in illegal activity, which can be challenging. Title 16 of the Georgia Code even specifies that authorities can keep property if the owner "intended" to use it in criminal activity.

Unlike many states, Georgia follows laws that let law enforcement agencies sell the confiscated property and keep 100 percent of the proceeds, according to the Huffington Post. Critics worry this creates an incentive for authorities to seize property without strong proof that a crime even occurred.

Alarmingly, oversight for these seizures can be limited. Prior to a 2011 lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice, law enforcement agencies frequently failed to file the mandatory seizure reports. Today, there is no agency that tracks the amount of property seized or the way the proceeds are used, according to the Athens Banner-Herald.

Fighting asset forfeiture

There are numerous stories of people in Georgia having assets confiscated despite minimal proof of criminal activity. According to the Athens Banner-Herald, one woman and her son were driving through Georgia on their way to view winter homes in Florida, with the intent of buying or renting one. The woman brought $11,530 in cash for the home-hunting trip.

The woman's son was pulled over for speeding, and upon questioning, he told the officer about the cash in the trunk. The officer asked if the pair had any narcotics in the vehicle and then used a police dog to search for drugs. The dog did not alert, but the officer still seized the cash under the suspicion that it was being used in drug trafficking.

Fortunately, this woman ultimately was able to get her money back. Still, her case illustrates how easily authorities may seize assets, even in the most innocent circumstances.

Victims of civil asset forfeiture can challenge the seizure in a hearing. However, these people must act quickly, before they lose the right to request a hearing. Anyone who has had assets seized through civil forfeiture should not delay contacting an attorney for advice on challenging the forfeiture.

Keywords: forfeiture, civil, asset