HB1: Civil Forfeiture, Georgia Sheriffs, and The County Unit System

I grew up in Fayette County when it still had legitimate claim to consider itself rural.  Randall Johnson became Sheriff before I entered elementary school.  He retired almost 6 years ago after 32 years on the job.  During the time he was Sheriff, he was Fayette County Government.  We were a law and order county, and he was the law. Despite no longer living there (and with all respect to current Sheriff Babb who grew up a few pastures over from me), I still wish he were Sheriff today.

He was a man of the community and he handled his politics well.  His party switch cemented Fayette in becoming a Republican County from being a Democratic one.  He almost never endorsed candidates, but you didn’t run for office without seeking the advice of Randall.  Well, you didn’t if you were smart.

He is a family friend, and had known my father since their childhood.  In short, he had the community trust to do his job as he saw fit.  He took care of us, gave us confidence that he or one of his deputies would be there when needed, and kept our community a nice place to live.

I imagine most rural communities feel the same way about their Sheriff.  When the job is done well, the office has the ability to transcend politics.  When it’s not, the power given to Georgia sheriffs by Georgia’s constitution can multiply problems if that power is abused.

House Bill 1 seeks to rein in a bit of that power.  It is a reformation of Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws.  It provides some timeframes/deadlines, specifies some required procedures, and otherwise seeks to add oversight and regulation to a system that relies on a great deal of trust.  Randall and the Fayette Commission had quite a few rounds over these issues.

Randall always won those, and when given the opportunity, I voted his side on those ballot tests.  I trusted him, and he earned that trust.

The problem with this trust is that it is extended to every Georgia Sheriff.  That’s 159 people with this wide latitude to take property and manage those funds in a less than transparent manner.

In rural communities, it is easier to track what is going on with a Sheriff that is a known quantity.  The check and balance of a ballot box is more real.

24 or so counties make up metropolitan Atlanta depending on which definition you use, but those counties contain over 5 million Georgians.  That’s more than half the state, living in counties with populations exceeding 100,000 people.  That’s the kind of place where it’s unlikely your Dad grew up with the Sheriff.  More likely, most of these folks will never even meet him or her.

The detachment of more than half of Georgians from their Sheriff changes the political calculus for members of the Georgia Sheriff’s association.  Over 100 of them come from mostly rural counties, where they are likely to know their neighbors.  As such, when they meet to discuss legislation, their 159 members make decisions with a decidedly rural viewpoint.

And yet, when the average Georgia voter decides there is or isn’t a problem, the majority of those votes come from urban and suburban areas.  And therein lies the conflict over HB1.

Metro Atlanta voters are beginning to identify the problems with broad powers of a sheriff when they see that Victor Hill can be re-elected to the position.  They have seen Gwinnett Turf wars between Sheriff Butch Conway and County Commissioner Charles Bannister which ended with Bannister being arrested for DUI -but not charged with anything after blowing 0.0.  And they see the potential for additional…headline amusement with the potential of a DeKalb Sheriff Vernon Jones.

There is great potential for abuse of current powers if put into the wrong hands.  The Georgia Sheriff’s Association should acknowledge the political reality that the state’s population does not match their membership makeup.  And the very real potential that a case or two of a highly publicized abuse will likely make the detached Atlanta area majority of voters demand of their politicians “why wasn’t more done sooner?”

I miss my Sheriff, and I miss the trust that we used to be able to give to elected officials like him.  I also know that we live in a different world, with different expectations of accountability, and an electorate which tends to overreact when small problems that go uncorrected become bigger ones.

HB 1 is a decent middle ground to codify reasonable procedures regarding civil forfeitures.  The Sheriff’s Association should strongly considering taking the small step forward in public accountability now, before a public problem forces a much worse deal later.

Most Georgians still trust and respect our sheriffs. HB1 does nothing to disrespect their years of service and commitment to their individual counties and communities, but rather seeks to protect their reputations. How awful would it be for my Sheriff Johnson to be seen as just another Victor Hill. The office of Sheriff, statewide is just one headline-worthy corruption scandal away from a statewide reconsideration of the very office. And if that scandal turned metro Atlanta voters against the idea of Sheriffs, rural Georgia would lose the service of some very fine women and men.


  1. Charlie says:

    From the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police:

    House Bill 1, commonly called the Civil Asset Forfeiture bill, has clearly been one of the most tremulous law enforcement bills to have been introduced at our state capitol in years. Last year, GACP expressed “grave concerns” with the bill, as did the Prosecuting Attorneys Council (PAC). The Georgia Sheriffs Association (GSA) was unbendingly opposed to the bill. If you are not aware of what transpired this year regarding the evolution of House Bill 1 to make it a very acceptable, well-crafted piece of legislation that now meets all of our professional and ethical requirements, I urge you to read the current version of the bill. However, I must warn you the bill is approximately 100 pages long, so in an attempt to save you time in reading the lengthy and complicated bill, I am placing in the lower part of this email a synopsis of the current version of HB 1 (LC 29 5888S).

    Last year, as the bill was being discussed in the House, I asked all of the members of the GACP to contact your State Representatives and convey to them our displeasure with the bill. That was last year; however, this year, HB 1 has been expertly re-crafted with all of our concerns being addressed. As the bill stands now, GACP “encourages” it’s passage for several reasons, with the most compelling reason being it shows that law enforcement is willing to be transparent, letting the citizens of our state and country know that we will report all our acquisitions of seized property as well as account for our spending which, as you know, is to be used for law enforcement purposes only! The supporters of this completely reworked bill include, but are not limited to, PAC and your association, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.

    Now I am urging you to call your State Representative(s) and to ask for their assistance in getting HB 1 through the House. Needless to say, before you ask them to do so, please familiarize yourself with the bill by reading the below synopsis. If you still have questions about the bill, please call me at the GACP office and if I am not readily available, leave a message and I will return your call. It is my personal and professional belief that for any law enforcement organization to oppose the bill, they are doing it because they fear the transparency aspect associated with the bill. The endorsement of our association of the re-worked HB 1 does showcase GACP as being an association based upon a foundation of high ethical principles. Remember, it is not about how much money or property we obtained by civil asset seizures, it is about stopping the criminals from taking their ill-gotten gains and parlaying those gains to be used to further their criminal enterprises. There are several more advantages of this bill that may or may not be evident to you and they are all of the asset forfeiture sections in the OCGA that can be found in one location and that additional crimes were added to the list of crimes in which you can seize assets, such as credit card fraud, etc.

    Now is the time to contact your State Representatives because I expect this bill to be heard at the beginning of next week, probably Monday (February 24th) or Tuesday (February 25th). Hopefully, within a week or so, I will be asking that you call your State Senators. Please contact your State Representative(s) now for time is of the essence!

    Synopsis of HB 1
    Ø The burden of proof will remain the same as it now is in the law: “Preponderance of the Evidence.” The original bill would have changed this burden to a higher evidence standard.

    Ø Return the Non-Judicial Ceiling to that as noted in OCGA 16-13-49 (n). The original House Bill 1 lowered it to $5000; however, it will remain as it is at $25,000, if the HB 1 Substitute passes. This is a major change because law enforcement will not have to utilize the courts if the seized property is under $25,000. However, when the amount exceeds $25,000, judicial review will be required [as opposed to] administrative action or review.

    Ø Restore the burden of “Innocent Owners” to that as sited in 16-13-49 (e). In short, the person who had their property taken must show that they did not know about the criminal conduct.

    Ø Mandated reporting to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government (CVI); however, this time the CVI must ask questions that clarify the amount of money/property seized and where it was spent. Forms are be developed by the CVI in conjunction with others and the field of major questions to be placed on the CVI forms are noted in the HB1 Substitute. This is all being done to [demonstrate] government transparency. Additionally, copies of the reports must be given to county and city government authorities. If reporting is not completed or there are allegations of the misuse of the money/property, the Attorney General may intervene with investigative authority. Further, the Attorney General will have the right to proceed criminally or civilly against the violators. Law enforcement must submit the reports, not the cities or the counties […admittedly, this area’s language could be clearer and I expect it will be clarified in the next version of the bill.] This section was modified to mandate that copies of the reports must be forwarded to other parts of your governments.

    Ø DAs are to receive [a] fixed 10% of the forfeiture pool. On this point, Prosecuting Attorneys Council (PAC), which is a semi-government state authority, will have funds allotted to them to develop guidelines for DAs as to the proper acquisition of the property and/or money and when and [how] the money might be spent. Additionally, the PAC allotment of the funds may be used for services [such as] court appeals, interpreters, etc. PAC must justify their budget to the State.

    Ø Answering of claims would require the claimant to attach documentation to support claims [that], among other things, explains their relationship to the person in possession of the property at the time of the seizure. This should help in the case where someone intends to deceive the system.

    Ø Eliminates clerks from the process of placing all of the money seized into a registry of the court. Under this modification, seized currency must be placed into a financial institution, if not needed for evidence. Any money gained as a result of interest earned in a financial institution must go to the claimant, if the case was disposed of in favor of the claimant who had their property seized.

    Ø Language was added to allow for greater fees in Rico Cases.

    Additional Benefits…
    There are numerous benefits to embracing this major modification of the original HB1 which should be blindly obvious to you when you look at the above noted changes. Additionally, though not noted above;

    Ø It standardizes the procedure to be used in all forfeiture cases. Georgia now has 34 different statutes, procedures, etc. governing forfeitures.

    Ø It will help to eliminate jury trials in forfeiture cases.

    Ø It adds additional crimes to the list of offenses in which property may be seized.

  2. saltycracker says:

    Well said. We experienced the same in Florida but a rapid pace. Having a sheriff and others in our family tree the stories reflect your column. The sheriff was the “dad” and main man in the not so culturally diverse community and the deputies were go to guys you could totally trust or worry about if you were pulling something. They knew who probably did what and at what level to enforce. Enforcement was selective but considered fair for the circumstances. Having known one of legendary status and getting a front row seat in some bizarre happenings, he could not use the same tactics today. Sheriff and judicial budgets also eat up more and more of a County’s budget driving fines, confiscation and task forces to new levels.

    Finding the right approach today is a real challenge with the population increases, diverse cultures, expanding complex laws, increased drug use/definitions, 911 response, traffic and increasing budgets.

    We are not going back to simpler times but we can address the new order a lot more efficiently.

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