Civil asset forfeiture
Under Official Code of Georgia Annotated 16-13-49, property that is in some way connected to a crime can be seized. This often applies to drug trafficking, as seen through Gainesville police’s forfeiture reports.
After the property is seized, a complaint for forfeiture will be filed, with the state of Georgia serving as the plaintiff. The property owner or stakeholder will be served with a copy of the summons. A legal response is required within 30 days after being served.
The property owner must prove that the seized property is not connected to illegal activity.
If no answer is received, a judgment will be filed to give the property to the law enforcement agency involved in the proceeding. The Hall County District Attorney’s Office Condemnation Fund will receive 10 percent of all proceeds, with the remaining 90 percent going to the law enforcement agency.
The old adage is “crime doesn’t pay,” but for law enforcement, there are dividends.
Under a section of Georgia code, law enforcement — often the Gainesville-Hall County Gang Task Force and the Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad — can seize property in some way connected to illegal activity. According to Hall County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Deputy Nicole Bailes, it is implemented in hopes of slowing criminal activity.
“Taking away key components and proceeds from this criminal enterprise will have people second-guessing whether to establish such an operation in Hall County,” Bailes wrote in an emailed statement.
In fiscal year 2012, the Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad was allotted $75,000 in seized funds to rent space for storage of confiscated items, Bailes wrote. At car shows, a Dodge Challenger from the Gainesville Police Department displays a “purchased with seized funds” sign on the back bumper.
After the property is seized, a complaint for forfeiture is filed in Hall County Superior Court by the district attorney’s office. The property is listed as the defendant in the case, and often is forfeitable because it was found in proximity to a controlled substance. It is also forfeitable if it is believed to be involved in, or proceeds from, drug transactions, as well as gambling, burglaries and other crimes.
The property owner or “interest holder” will be served with a copy of the summons, then has 30 days to respond to the Superior Court summons.
In nearly all cases listed in Gainesville police’s forfeiture reports, such a response was not filed within the 30 days, according to the Hall County Comprehensive Justice Information System. Failing to do results in a judgment in the state’s favor.
In divvying up the proceeds from the forfeiture, 10 percent goes to the Hall County District Attorney’s Office Condemnation Fund. The rest goes to the condemnation fund of the law enforcement agency involved.
“If it’s a GPD seizure, depending on who made the case or those types of things, then what we do is we put those funds back into the task force as far as operational costs and things of that nature,” Gainesville police spokesman Cpl. Kevin Holbrook said.
In fiscal year 2013, Gainesville police purchased $1,076 worth of Glock handgun holsters for task force officers, along with nearly $4,000 for Rocket systems, according to the department’s forfeiture reports.
“It’s a platform which ultimately makes the car like a Wi-Fi hotspot. The officers can utilize everything on the computer — the camera systems (and) everything in there,” Holbrook said.
“Then once they come to the police department, it automatically downloads into the police department server to store that information and secure data.”
For the sheriff’s office in that same fiscal year, most funds went to “covert operations.”
“Covert operations funds are mostly funds that allow the agents to conduct undercover ‘buy’ operations,” Bailes wrote.
When seizing property, Bailes wrote that items suspected to be involved in illegal activity will be seized. In Gainesville police cases listed in the forfeiture reports, this often involves large sums of cash and vehicles. More peculiar items included a framed autographed Lebron James jersey, a backpack blower and a Playstation 3 in separate cases, according to court records.
Automobiles are sold through Govdeals.com, a website that allows local law enforcement to sell confiscated items. In fiscal year 2013, Gainesville police received $18,000 from the sale of 12 different vehicles.
For Hall County, operating supplies funded through asset forfeiture often include training ammo, communications, recording equipment and vehicle equipment, Bailes wrote.
In one example listed in the Gainesville police forfeiture reports, a vehicle was returned to its owner.
In 2010, a Flowery Branch man was driving with $369 in his car when it was suspected the money was related to methamphetamine found in a traffic stop, according to court documents. The car and the money were seized.
“The $369.00 in US Currency at issue was located on Defendant’s person and is not connected to any alleged criminal activity,” the answer read. “Defendant had recently cashed his paycheck and was still carrying that money at the time of his arrest and its seizure.”
The money was forfeited to the state, but the vehicle was ordered for return.