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Ga. Prosecutors Say They Can Compromise on Civil Forfeitures

Proposed Revisions to bill include trust funds to oversee spending of seized assets

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Chuck Spahos: Prosecuting Attorneys Council would support a revised bill.
Chuck Spahos: Prosecuting Attorneys Council would support a revised bill.

Georgia prosecutors have indicated they are willing to stop fighting a bill regulating civil forfeitures if compromises reached this fall with sheriffs and lawmakers are included in the bill this legislative session.

House Bill 1 rankled district attorneys last year because it would have raised the state's burden of proof to seize assets linked to crimes from a preponderance of the evidence to clear and convincing evidence. The bill also would have required judges to approve forfeitures worth more than $5,000, rather than the $25,000 ceiling under which authorities can seize assets now. Finally, the bill would have required prosecutors to prove that allegedly innocent owners—people whose seized property was used by another in a criminal action—unequivocally knew about underlying criminal activity in order for the court to grant forfeiture.

Rep. Wendell Willard, the Sandy Springs Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, filed HB 1 in November 2012 at the urging of several citizen groups. Willard's committee approved the bill with edits in February, but the bill stalled on the House floor and was eventually recommitted to the House Rules Committee for further discussion due in large part to strong opposition from district attorneys and sheriffs.

District attorneys and law enforcement agencies often rely on seized money and property to pay for equipment and training. But spending of seized drug funds and other forfeited assets has caught public's attention in recent months, following allegations of misuse against several metro-area district attorneys.

As a result of heightened attention, the Prosecuting Attorneys Council proposed creating a trust fund through which the council would oversee forfeiture funds for each circuit. The PAC also would promulgate clearer guidelines for how the money could be spent, which would heighten transparency and accountability, said Chuck Spahos, the PAC's executive director.

"We already do this in terms of managing travel expenditures and state employee payments," he said. "The amount of appropriated state funds already comes through the PAC for each DA. This is not a new concept."

Spahos added that the trust fund idea may be added to the current legislation.

"If Chairman Willard's [revised] bill contains the language we've agreed to, and we can get our language worked out regarding the trust fund, then the DAs will support House Bill 1," Spahos said.

Cobb County DA Vic Reynolds said prosecutors pressed for the burden of proof for the state to remain at preponderance of the evidence and that the non-judicial threshold should remain at $25,000. In turn, prosecutors agreed to file complaints in court any time an owner filed a claim or answer to a forfeiture.

"Any claim, regardless of its sufficiency, would require a district attorney to file a complaint for forfeiture and go the full judicial route," Spahos said.

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