Pubdate: Sun, 30 Aug 2009
Source: Athens Banner-Herald (GA)
Copyright: 2009 Athens Newspapers Inc
Author: Joe Johnson
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)
Bookmark: (Marijuana)


Property Seizures by Prosecutors

An Athens man won a rare victory this month when he cut a deal to get
back half of more than $10,000 in suspected drug money that police
seized from him in December.

An attorney argued the money was legitimate - that nearly all of it
came from the man's mother after she sold property in East Athens -
and police found the money during an illegal search.

Faced with a potentially long and costly court battle, the prosecutor
decided to cut his losses and negotiate a deal that allowed the man
and his mother to keep $5,152, said the attorney, Edward Tolley.

"The district attorney has to invest his time in these cases, and so
for him to expend the amount of hours that would be needed to fight
our claim would not be a good business decision," Tolley said.

Prosecutors can send accused dealers to prison, but they also can
seize their homes and cars, if they were used to sell drugs, and any
profits they made through the illegal trade.

And most people who lose property under those drug asset forfeiture
laws don't bother fighting back because the odds are stacked against
them, attorneys say.

Prosecutors file in civil court to keep seized drug money and property
even before the criminal cases go forward.

"That puts defendants at a distinct disadvantage because most times
they are unable to testify in the civil case because you don't want to
put your client on the witness stand before trial on the criminal
case," Tolley said.

And the standard of proof for prosecutors in civil court is not as
high as it is in criminal court.

"In civil court, they don't have to prove anything beyond a reasonable
doubt, so the forfeiture laws are pretty much structured in favor of
the government," said Bill Overend, an Athens attorney and former prosecutor.

The valuables in some forfeiture cases really could make a person look
guilty in criminal court.

In January, for example, prosecutors filed to keep $10,414 police
seized from a man accused of running a marijuana grow house in
Southeastern Clarke County. But the claim also lay stakes to the
trappings of the grow operation, including marijuana grinders, exhaust
fans, lighting systems, surveillance cameras, irrigation hoses and

"In cases like this, if I claimed the majority of the stuff it would
just make me look guilty, so I wouldn't bother" trying to get it back,
Overend said.

Prosecutors so far this year have filed 26 forfeiture claims in Clarke
County Superior Court, and only six of the cases have been contested,
according to court records.

The cases involve a total of $66,047.71 in cash, plus several cars and
trucks, guns, and other property police confiscated because they were
bought with drug money or used by dealers to commit crimes.

"It's a very small amount," said Athens-Clarke police Lt. Mike
Hunsinger, commanding officer of the Northeast Georgia Regional Drug
Task Force.

"That money is not something that's going to make or break the budgets
of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department and other members of the
task force," he said.

The drugs are far more valuable than confiscated cash and property,
Hunsinger said.

The Athens-Clarke police forfeited funds account last week held
$25,881, according to the county Finance Department.

Police can't use seized money to pay officer salaries and overtime -
only for "law enforcement purposes," such as training and equipment,
according to Hunsinger.

Police have used seized vehicles as unmarked cars for undercover

The Athens-Clarke police West Precinct at Georgia Square Mall used to
be a movie theater, and two-thirds of the renovation costs were paid
for by drug asset forfeiture funds.
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