Shoddy Reporting from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Georgia’s Forfeiture Law

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a blog post up today with a headline which reads: "Forfeiture: Georgia was once one of the worst. Now? It’s not so bad." Sounds great. When did the Georgia General Assembly pass legislation to improve the forfeiture law in the state by requiring more protections for innocent property owners? Well, it hasn’t.

Let’s look at the AJC’s dumpster fire of a blog post and why it’s wholly inaccurate.

A recent report from a libertarian group gives Georgia a C- for its laws on asset forfeiture, where law enforcement seizes property or cash because they suspect a crime took place.

All in all, that’s an improvement. The Institute for Justice gave Georgia a D- in 2010, calling it one of the worst in the nation when it came to protecting residents from unjust seizures. Under civil forfeiture law, officers and prosecutors can keep the property even if no one is prosecuted for a crime. Agencies get to keep a cut of the proceeds, which critics say can encourage cash-strapped agencies to police for profit.

What the AJC has done, in an "investigative" report, no less, is conflate two reports from the Institute for Justice. One report, Policing for Profit, is a comprehensive report on all aspects of forfeiture in state laws while the other, Forfeiture Transparency & Accountability: State-by-State and Federal Report Cards, is limited to only the reporting and transparency requirements in states.

The report from the Institute for Justice, Forfeiture Transparency & Accountability: State-by-State and Federal Report Cards, that purportedly shows an improvement in Georgia’s forfeiture law has nothing to do with substantive changes to the evidentiary standard required to subject property to forfeiture or the burden of proof.

The AJC cited the 2010 Institute for Justice report, Policing for Profit. The Institute for Justice released the second edition of Policing for Profit in 2015. Policing for Profit offered a full review of state forfeiture laws, from evidentiary standards to burdens of proof to transparency to circumvention through the federal forfeiture loophole.

In 2010, Georgia was given a D-. In 2015, after the Georgia General Assembly enacted HB 233, which made changes to reporting and transparency statutes, Georgia was given, yet again, a D-, and justifiably so.

Georgia was given the same low grade because HB 233 didn’t address the inadequate evidentiary standard in state forfeiture law, currently a preponderance of the evidence, nor the burden of proof, which, in a perversion of justice, falls on the property owner, who may never be charged with a crime. It simply provided uniformity and, again, placed reporting and transparency requirements on law enforcement.

In short, there has been absolutely no substantive improvement in Georgia’s forfeiture law. Law enforcement can still seize property without arresting, charging or convicting someone of a crime and subject it to forfeiture based on an incredibly low evidentiary standard. HB 233 simply requires law enforcement to be more transparent about it when it takes property even if the person from whom it is taken isn’t charged or convicted.

But to show how shoddy this blog post from the AJC truly is. The report the author cites as the basis for improvements in Georgia’s forfeiture law gives New Mexico a D- for transparency and reporting. In 2015, the New Mexico Legislature passed and Gov. Susana Martinez signed the strongest forfeiture law in the country, considered to be the "gold standard" of forfeiture reform.

The Institute for Justice, in Policing for Profit, gave New Mexico an A- because the state requires a criminal conviction to subject property to forfeiture and shifts the burden of proof to the government, where it belongs. Sure, New Mexico is lacking in reporting and transparency, but there haven’t been any changes to state’s forfeiture law since 2015, and its forfeiture law remains the best in the country.

In 2016, legislation, HB 832, was introduced by state Rep. Scot Turner (R-Holly Springs) that would have made a simple change to the Peach State’s forfeiture law to dramatically improve it by requiring a criminal conviction before permanently seizing property. Unfortunately, no floor action was taken on the bill. FreedomWorks Foundation did, however, testify on Georgia’s forfeiture law when the bill was in a state House subcommittee.

With the Georgia General Assembly returning to Atlanta for its 2017 session, FreedomWorks is hopeful that state lawmakers will revisit forfeiture. Sadly, poor reporting from the AJC, unless it’s corrected, will feed the false narrative perpetuated by opponents of forfeiture reform and keep Georgia’s terrible forfeiture law in place.