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The effort to reform Georgia's terrible civil asset forfeiture laws received an unexpected boost Monday when Michael McNeely, 1st Vice Chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and a former police officer, presented a compelling case for changes recently introduced by state Rep. Scot Turner (R-Holly Springs). Turner's legislation, HB 832, would make a slight tweak to Georgia forfeiture law that would require judges to stay forfeiture proceedings until prosecutors obtain a criminal conviction.
McNeely has a unique understanding of Georgia's criminal justice system. He has a degree in criminal justice from Georgia Southern University and served in law enforcement in Metro Atlanta. Today, in addition to his work with the Georgia Republican Party, he is a deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, which has overseen sweeping changes under Gov. Nathan Deal. McNeely is urging state lawmakers to tackle civil asset forfeiture, another area of the justice system in need of reform.
"Civil asset forfeiture allows property to be seized by the police and later kept or sold without requiring you to have been charged with a crime. The practice has a history dating back hundreds of years to British maritime law and was used during the Prohibition era. More recently, this practice of seizing assets has been widely used in the war on drugs. Many in the law enforcement community strongly advocate for its use as a tool in fighting crime. However, many others have recently called into question the use and impact of civil asset forfeiture on society," McNeely wrote at zPolitics. "Given the importance of due process for every citizen, shouldn’t we debate this issue further and ensure due process is consistently applied?"
Indeed, both the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Georgia Constitution expressly state that "life, liberty, or property" cannot be denied without due process of law. Despite these protections, Georgia civil asset forfeiture laws, which were tweaked in 2015 to heighten reporting requirements, are shockingly unprotective of property owners. Property can be forfeited to the state based on a low standard of evidence and, in a perversion of justice, the burden of proof falls on the owner, who does not have to be charged with a crime before their property is subject to forfeiture.
"Some advocates for civil asset forfeiture say that there can be factors leading to dismissals of criminal cases that are unrelated to someone being factually innocent. They believe that law enforcement agencies need seized funds to fight crime. In addition, they consider civil forfeiture as a law enforcement tool which can be used to deter criminals from partaking in illegal activity," McNeely continues. "But do the benefits espoused by pro-civil asset forfeiture groups outweigh the cost of compromising the due process rights of citizens, thereby placing a heavy burden on individuals to prove their property has not been used for illegal purposes?"
"I was a police officer for over 10 years and took pride in protecting and serving our communities each day. I strongly believe law enforcement has and can continue to fight crime without compromising the fundamental due process rights of the people they protect. The debate of civil asset forfeiture needs to be had again," McNeely added.
As a former police officer, McNeely understands that law enforcement agencies in Georgia need proper funding to perform their duties, a responsibility that should fall on the state and local governments. But he believes that Georgia's civil asset forfeiture laws should be changed to require the highest standard -- a criminal conviction, or "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" -- before the state takes possession of property connected to an illicit activity.