Georgia’s forfeiture laws have come under scrutiny lately, following an investigation into reports of alleged abuse in some counties across the state.
State forfeiture laws essentially allow law enforcement to seize homes, vehicles, cash and property — but not without a catch. There are principles that law enforcement agencies are urged to adhere to, but there’s a lot of gray area for departments without accountability. Civil forfeiture laws in Georgia basically say that as long as the government can establish probable cause or a preponderance of evidence that the seized property was involved in illegal activity, then it can be seized.
CPD Chief Stacey Cotton, however, is quick to point out that in Covington, there is accountability in the police department, and the money gained from civil forfeitures is audited and kept track of just like any other funds. Georgia statutes require an annual report of items seized and the disposition of the items during each fiscal year.
According to a memo sent to Covington’s Finance Director Leigh Ann Knight, the beginning balance in the CPD’s civil forfeiture account in fiscal year 2011 was $54,298, and it received $37,707 from disposed cases and $82.77 in interest on the account. In fiscal year 2012, the account had a beginning balance of $65,745, and received $14,782 from disposed cases and $35.52 in interest. The ending balance was $59,162.
This year, the CPD has received $17,835 from cases thus far, with a balance in the account of $73,848, according to bank records supplied to The News by Cotton.
The funds can be used for anything deemed to be a law enforcement expense. Recent expenses paid from the account included a reception for an employee, a staff meeting breakfast, and meals for Explorers.
"There’s no secrecy to the money," said Cotton. "It runs just like any other account in the city.’’
The CPD does not often have cases that allow it to seize funds or property. It has only seized funds since 2005.
The last case came in 2010, when officers stopped Martec Berkeley for a traffic stop and found that he had $4,536 in cash, a digital scale and marijuana. He was charged with intent to distribute, among other things.
But the CPD doesn’t keep all of the money that is seized. The Clerk of Court’s filing fee is $80; the forfeiture has to be advertised in legal notices as well as a public place (the CPD uses the courthouse) for a month; and the District Attorney’s office receives 10 percent. The balance goes into the CPD’s account to be used for law enforcement purposes.
Cotton said officers don’t always seize money — even if they technically could — because with the costs associated with actually claiming the cash, it’s oftentimes not worth it.
The CPD’s largest seizure came in 2005 when several gambling machines (which are illegal in Georgia) were taken from the Chevron on Alcovy Road. There was $2,899.50 in the machines.
Another requirement from the city, and from District Attorney Layla Zon, is that officers be able to prove one of three things:
1) Was the property purchased with the proceeds of a crime? Can it be proven that whatever the item is, money from illicit activities went into paying for that item — whether it be a house, car or flat-screen TV?
2) Is the car the person was driving paid for, and there are hidden compartments where drugs are being stored? Are drugs hidden under the driver’s seat of a vehicle? Are they in a center console where they could belong to anyone in the vehicle, yet no one will claim them?
3) If a dealer is arrested and has a wad of money, are there marked bills that undercover officers used to purchase drugs? If law enforcement can prove that the money was used during illegal activities, it’s free game. Cotton concedes that some departments in other counties might not have strict policies in place and are potentially pushing the boundaries on the civil forfeiture law, but said that in Covington, it’s not always about the money.
"It ain’t about the money; it’s about the drugs and the crime," he said. "The money to me is the back end. Obviously, we enjoy it and we like it, and I think it does impact the bad guys when you hurt them financially… I think it’s up to the agency heads to set that tone… When we’re out here working the case, we’re working the case."
See the May 26 edition for a breakdown of civil seizures and forfeitures from the Newton County Sheriff’s Office.