Understanding civil asset forfeiture in Georgia

People facing asset forfeiture proceedings should understand what forfeiture is, how the process works and how these proceedings can be contested.

Most Atlanta residents know that people suspected of criminal activity can face various serious consequences in Georgia, from incarceration to fines. However, many people may not be as aware of the risk of property loss during civil asset forfeiture proceedings. Unfortunately, these proceedings have become significantly more common in recent years, according to The Washington Post. This makes it essential for Georgians to understand forfeiture proceedings and know how they can be challenged.

What exactly is civil asset forfeiture?

The U.S. Department of Justice explains that asset forfeiture proceedings can take multiple forms. During criminal forfeiture proceedings, the proceeds from alleged criminal activity and property involved in offenses such as white collar crimes can be seized if the owner is found guilty of those offenses. Civil forfeiture proceedings allow authorities to seize the same types of property by bringing charges directly against the property.

In civil forfeiture proceedings, authorities do not need to prove that the property owner committed a crime. Authorities do not even have to formally charge a person before or after commencing forfeiture proceedings. Additionally, the burden of proof in these cases is reduced, since all proceedings are against the property instead of the owner. Rather than receiving a presumption of innocence, property owners must prove that the seizure was wrongful.

What happens to seized property?

The property seized during asset forfeiture proceedings may be used in various ways. For instance, funds and proceeds from seized property might help fund government agencies, programs or employees. In some cases, law enforcement authorities may benefit directly from seizing assets, as these assets may pay for salaries or other departmental costs. Some critics worry that this arrangement creates a conflict of interest for authorities.

The Washington Post reports that the DOJ's profit sharing program, which lets local authorities claim a portion of property seized under federal proceedings, was recently suspended. The same source explains that federal forfeiture laws often let authorities keep a greater amount of the assets that they seize than state laws do. Therefore, supporters of the suspension hope that it could help reduce the incentive for law enforcement authorities to seize assets in questionable cases.

Can forfeiture be contested?

Property owners have a right to challenge the seizure of their property. However, owners must clear several hurdles to recover their property, including:

  • Meeting relevant procedural deadlines
  • Proving that they have an interest in the property and a right to challenge the forfeiture
  • Establishing a valid objection to the seizure of the property

Owners must show that seized property was not involved in criminal activity or that they had no knowledge of such activity. If a preponderance of evidence indicates otherwise, owners might not be able to recover their property.

Contesting asset forfeiture proceedings can be a complex process in Georgia. Consequently, anyone who has received notice of these proceedings should consider consulting with a defense attorney as soon as possible for advice on challenging the forfeiture.