ATLANTA | A state lawmaker behind an effort to overhaul Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws has made key changes to the bill, which stalled last year amid objections from law enforcement.
Rep. Wendell Willard, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday he’s hopeful the bill will proceed and plans to bring it up in committee soon. Under the revised bill, the state’s burden of proof remains the same, along with the $25,000 threshold under which authorities can seize assets without judicial approval.
Willard, R-Sandy Springs, had initially sought to raise the burden of proof and lower the threshold to $5,000. The overall bill aims to establish procedures for the handling of seized assets and increase reporting.
Willard said he worked with Georgia prosecutors to draw up the revisions and built in a mechanism of judicial review for those who make a claim to seized assets.
“The DAs have given me a strong assurance that whoever has a concern that their property has been taken improperly will be given a judicial hearing,” Willard said.
Other changes include establishing a trust fund so that any state forfeiture funds received by district attorneys will be sent for distribution to the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, which already handles state funds for local prosecutors. The council had objected, along with the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, to the original bill.
The council’s executive director, Chuck Spahos, said Wednesday he believes prosecutors will be able to support the revised bill once a few technical changes are made.
“I believe that we are very close to what I would consider a very good bill for Georgia,” Spahos said, adding he was pleased that Willard had included the trust fund. “The advantage is that it creates accountability, transparency and subjects the funds to the same process that every state dollar goes through.”
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said his group was still reviewing the revised bill and wanted to reserve comment until the bill came before committee.
The revised bill still compels agencies to submit an annual report to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, but changes the penalty process. Initially, the bill had called for any agency that failed to comply to be deemed ineligible to receive property through the state civil forfeiture process for two years.
The revised bill removes that sanction and instead authorizes the attorney general to conduct an investigation and bring any criminal or civil actions to ensure compliance. An agency not in compliance after 30 days would be prohibited from collecting the funds until they are in compliance.