Georgia’s New Civil Asset Forfeiture Law Does Not Go Far Enough

Jason Pye is the Director of Justice Reform for FreedomWorks. Jorge Marin is the Policy Specialist for Criminal Justice Reform for Americans for Tax Reform.

Under the leadership of Gov. Nathan Deal, Georgia has become a national leader on justice reform. Prior to the reforms, which began in 2012, the Peach State spent over $1 billion annually housing almost 56,000 inmates, many of whom are low-level, nonviolent offenders, the rate of repeat offenders was depressingly high.

The new “smart on crime” approach undertaken by Gov. Deal has been a resounding success. The number of inmates has fallen and crime and repeat offender rates have dipped. The reforms have been good for taxpayers. In 2014, the Georgia Justice Reform Council estimated savings of $264 million over five years.

This past legislative session, Gov. Deal and the Georgia General Assembly took a look at another aspect of justice reform by reforming the state’s terrible civil asset forfeiture laws, which lack meaningful protections for innocent people.

Civil asset forfeiture is a particularly pernicious form of government overreach. Overzealous law enforcement can seize the property or money of an individual without ever charging or convicting them with a crime. In an inversion of justice, the seized items are considered “guilty” until proven innocent by the property owner.

Innocent people who are adversely affected by civil asset forfeiture walk away from their property rather than fight what would be a lengthy and costly legal battle to get wrongfully seized property back.

It gets worse. The seizing state or local law enforcement agency can keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds, creating a perverse profit motive to use this tool to, essentially, take property without the due process guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. This profit motive also serves as a distraction for law enforcement by encouraging them to be revenue collectors.

Georgia law enforcement and prosecutors insist that civil asset forfeiture is an essential tool to fight illegal drugs, but it is clear that it breeds abuse.