To Rebuild Trust in Law Enforcement, We Must Reform Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws
By Buzz Brockway
In the wake of the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and now Rayshard Brooks, issues of racism and questions about use of force by police dominate the news. Understandably, emotions are high as people want answers and change. The Georgia Center for Opportunity has worked diligently over the years on issues of criminal justice reform. We see this as a key issue in pursuit of our goal of a society where everyone has the opportunity to flourish. We stand with our African-American sisters and brothers as they call for justice.
One key area in need of reform is called civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture is a process in which law enforcement officers take assets from persons suspected of involvement in illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing. The assets are thought to be either obtained as a result of illegal activity, or used in the commission of a crime. A civil court proceeding takes place to determine if the assets are to be forfeited and the funds used for law enforcement purposes.
As solutions are being offered, it is important to keep in mind the vital role law enforcement play in protecting the vulnerable and seeking justice for victims. Human flourishing and freedom cannot take place in unsafe communities. Therefore, law enforcement can and should be a key part of the solution to issues such as racism and discussions about the proper application of force against those suspected of criminal activity.
While the facts surrounding each of the tragic deaths listed above differ, one common thread moving through each case is lack of trust. Lack of trust that officers will use force responsibly, lack of trust that officers will properly deal with arrest warrants, and lack of trust that prosecutors will prosecute crimes equally, especially crimes committed against the African-American community. As we consider potential reforms, focusing our efforts on restoring trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve would seem to be efforts that could bear much fruit.
To that end, let me suggest we look at increasing transparency and oversight of Georgia’s civil asset forfeiture laws. The Georgia Center for Opportunity recently completed a study of these laws, how the system works, and made recommendations around increased transparency and accountability.
Civil forfeiture of assets from law enforcement activities has become an important funding mechanism for many law enforcement agencies as well as multi-jurisdictional task forces crucial to fighting criminal gangs. However, the issue raises concerns about justice, freedom and prosperity. While a 2015 law made major improvements in civil asset forfeiture reporting requirements, it is not possible to know whether there was a conviction in the case that resulted in the property being forfeited. To restore trust, collecting this information is crucial.
Additionally, understanding the outcome of the case would allow us to determine if Georgia civil asset forfeiture laws violate the 8th Amendment prohibition on excessive fines. The recent Supreme Court decision in Timbs v. Indiana makes it clear that the 8th Amendment applies to the state. As it relates to civil asset forfeiture, is it an “excessive fine” to forfeit a car worth several thousand dollars for a minor drug conviction? To restore trust in law enforcement, this question must be answered.
Rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the community will take time and many policies and practices must be reviewed and debated. Increasing transparency and accountability in Georgia’s civil asset forfeiture laws is an important step in the right direction.