Pubdate: Fri, 25 Apr 2003
Source: Savannah Morning News (GA)
Copyright: 2003 Savannah Morning News
Author: By Walter C. Jones
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


ATLANTA -- Little of the money state police officers seize from drug
traffickers winds up helping them fight crime as a 1974 law intended,
according to government report that has lawmakers wondering whether changes
are needed.

Instead, state law-enforcement agencies opt to let local police claim the
money in hopes they'll donate a share to the state. Often, local departments
do donate cars for undercover use, computers or money for equipment, but
some state cops told investigators they don't feel they always get their

In 2001, state judges ordered the forfeiture of more than $8 million worth
of cash and property confiscated from 2,830 instances where it was found
near illegal drugs, according to the Georgia Department of Audits and
Accounts. Until the department published its report in October 2002, no one
knew how much was forfeited because there is no mechanism for the state to
regularly collect the data.

Rep. Burke Day is among those worried something is out of balance, and the
Tybee Island Republican sponsored legislation to sniff out the situation.

"I've been trying to figure out where does it go," Day said.

His resolution to create a study committee of legislators stalled because
House Speaker Terry Coleman believes there are already too many special
study committees. Yet, he has the same questions Day has.

"It's worth looking into," said Coleman, D-Eastman.

Coleman was chairman last year of the organization that requested the audit,
the Budgetary Responsibility Oversight Committee. When the audit was
released, it was in the middle of the fall elections when BROC members were
likely more focused on politics than policy. BROC never met to discuss the

This year's BROC chairman, Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, wasn't familiar
with the details of the audit but said he expected BROC to study it further
once the urgency is passed to find savings in the state budget.

"It is an area that we need to look into to tighten the guidelines of how
these funds are distributed," Hooks said.

Under Georgia's forfeiture law, only 25 percent of seized assets can go to
the state anyway. And the state's share goes directly into the Georgia
treasury rather than into the accounts of the statewide police agencies,
which include the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia State Patrol,
Department of Corrections and the Department of Natural Resources.

The auditors concluded there was no incentive for the state agencies to try
to seize property under the state law, and that none had in the last five
years. The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the GBI and State
Patrol, is considering some type of change in its policy, said spokesman
Gordy Wright.

As it stands, if a DNR ranger finds a fishing boat full of drug money, the
agency feels it stands a better chance of getting the boat, a gun or some of
the money if it lets the local sheriff claim everything seized. Yet, there
is no requirement that the sheriff donate anything.

When the auditors inspected the records of 26 local police and sheriff's
offices, they found sloppy accounting practices, lax controls and some minor
instances where the money was spent on questionable activities.

Because of its size and proximity to the Latin American countries where many
drugs originate, Georgia seized the sixth most drug assets of any state. The
five states seizing more have different procedures that the auditors
recommended following here.

The audit recommends other changes in the law, and Coleman, Day and Hooks
said they would keep probing, possibly in time for new legislation when the
General Assembly convenes again in January for its next regular session.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Josh