Civil asset forfeiture just might be the most anodyne name ever concocted for an outrageous government practice. Maybe if we started calling “letting law enforcement steal your money and stuff” people might pay attention to it.
The practice is used by law enforcement to take property from a person if they think it is connected to a crime –even though the person doesn’t have to be convicted (or even charged with) a crime. The seized stuff doesn’t even have to belong to the person suspected of being a criminal. The law enforcement agency can seize whatever they want, and keep it until whoever owns it proves they were not involved with criminal activity. Georgia’s reform effort –that took effect just over a year ago– requires only that law enforcement file some reports about how the property was seized and what they did with it. While this is a good first step, they can still take your stuff without charging you with anything.
Put your Constitutional doubts about this practice on hold for a minute and try to imagine any governmental practice more ripe for abuse than civil asset forfeiture.
Abuse is what Ronnie and Lee Bartlett, owners of the now bankrupt Captain Jack’s Crab Shack, have hired former State Attorney General Mike Bowers to sue the Macon-Bibb District Attorney David Cooke, Cooke’s special prosecutor, Michael Lambros, Byron police investigator Melanie Bickford, and Centerville police officer Christine Welch for.
“In the lawsuit, the Bartletts allege that the defendants have a “pattern and practice” of seizing assets from businesses operating “bona fide coin operated amusement machines” and extorting a resolution in which they keep a portion of the money “improperly seized” while threatening criminal prosecution.
Cooke then creates an “unaccountable fund” for the money, minus the money paid to Lambros, and spends the funds on “items that he believes will garner him favor with his constituency,” the suit maintains.”
For the record, DA Cooke denies the accusations and says his office “adhered to the highest standards…” which is kind of the point. The standards aren’t all that high, so Cooke’s office could have adhered to them and still done a grave injustice to the Bartletts and their business. Former contributor Jason Pye, now Communications Director for FreedomWorks, says the Georgia General Assembly should take action.
“We know that Paul Howard and David McDade have used Georgia’s civil asset forfeiture laws in very questionable ways, but this story is one of the worst examples of abuse that I’ve seen,” Pye wrote in an emailed statement.”The Georgia General Assembly must reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws to raise the evidentiary standard needed to subject property to forfeiture, to ensure that the burden of proof always falls on the government, and to eliminate the perverse profit motive that allows law enforcement to keep the proceeds from these permanently seized assets.”
But if the Georgia General Assembly can’t make this right, maybe Mike Bowers and a federal judge can do it for them.