In 2015, after years of debate and demands that the state do something to protect its citizens from the unreasonable seizure of their goods, the state of Georgia passed protections for their citizens to prevent their assets being seized without reasonable due process in a procedure known as asset forfeiture. Thankfully, Republican state representative Scot Turner has introduced a bill to strengthen those protections.
The bill he introduced this summer, H.B. 505, ensures that the government in Georgia must have a conviction in order to seize property or assets from individuals. This seems like something that should be required in general before seizing goods from citizens, but strangely only 15 states in the United States require any sort of conviction to allow for the seizure of assets from United States citizens. Of those states, only three, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Nebraska, have outright abolished the questionable practice altogether.
Civil asset forfeiture laws are designed to allow police to seize property (or in some cases, funds) that they believe to be tied to a crime or to ongoing criminal activity, even without having to charge the suspect with a crime (Thanks Slick Willie). Because of this, it is important that there be a proper process for seizure, and that there be a procedure for recovering funds that have been seized in error or without conviction.
Law enforcement officers and their representatives across the country have said that civil asset forfeiture is essential in disrupting organized crimes and drug trafficking that is plaguing the country. Likely, police also do not have an issue with the funds that they seize and the way that they help to buffer their departments’ budgets. However, civil rights groups on the left, the right, the center, and the libertarian sides of the political spectrum all agree that the current practice of civil asset forfeiture being practiced in much of the country is one that is questionable not just legally, but also ethically.
In 35 states, 70 percent of the states in our nation, one need not ever be convicted of a crime to have their property seized and never returned. In many states, the police do not even need to charge you with a crime to prevent you from being able to recover your property. Further, the process of recovering funds or property seized via civil asset forfeiture is one that often requires expense and time, and will usually mean hiring a lawyer. For small sums of money or property lost, this is barely worth it for the person who loses their property.
Turner does not want to stop police from being able to utilize civil asset forfeiture, which he makes clear in discussions about his bill. Turner simply says that “It’s just that they can’t immediately start using the money. They have to go through criminal proceedings first. That restores the concept of innocent until proven guilty. I mean, that’s a fundamental American promise, that you have rights that are intrinsic to you by your very nature as a human being. We recognize that as a country. That’s an American promise. We break that promise when we engage in this type of activity.”
There is nothing wrong with protecting the right to due process and to reasonable protections for citizens and their right to their own property. Sure, some law enforcement organizations in Georgia will be less than happy about it, but the rights of citizens to maintain their property should be more important to the state than the idea law enforcement should be able to do what they like with property of alleged criminals.
And Georgia has had its share of issues with ridiculous asset forfeiture stops, including one targeting a grandmother who was carrying cash for a condo downpayment and one case involving an Atlanta Hawks basketball player
Not all police or law enforcement organizations abuse the concept of civil asset forfeiture, but whether they abuse it or not should not be the main concern here. The United States is built on protection of the rights of an individual, including their right to own property, from the unreasonable seizure of such property. It is one of the basic concepts behind our foundation and constitution!
What Turner is doing is a great thing for the state of Georgia, but even more importantly, it may well motivate another 35 states to do something about their civil asset forfeiture laws.