States passed civil asset forfeiture laws to disrupt organized crime and drug trafficking by targeting illicit proceeds. But, a recent investigation by a watchdog group has found that an office that is part of the Georgia Department of Revenue spent $3.1 million seized through civil asset forfeiture illegally.
A state watchdog group reported that the Office of Special Investigations retained $5.3 million from asset forfeitures in the 2015 to 2020 time period. They should have deposited that money in the state’s general fund. They spent $3.1 million on gym equipment, Fitbits, vehicles, office furniture and other items. Investigators found that leadership within the office ignored the law and mislead the Department of Revenue. While agency officials deny wrongdoing, they returned $2.1 million to the state treasury the day after the agency issued its report.
Civil asset forfeiture laws
When police suspect criminal activity involves property, civil asset forfeiture laws provide Georgia police with the authority to seize it. They do not have to charge the property owner with a crime. Advocates for civil liberties allege that asset forfeiture lacks safeguards and creates profit motives for police. Over 50% of U.S. states have passed asset forfeiture reforms due to misuse of the practice by law enforcement.
While this case is not likely to change Georgia law overnight, it does highlight the potential for abuse in the system. Persons facing property seizure by the government have legal rights. In some cases, the government may have to return improperly seized property.