Pubdate: Wed, 30 Mar 2011
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2011 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Steve Visser, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rhonda Cook, 
Staff Writer contributed.


Police in Georgia are violating a law requiring them to document cash
and assets seized in investigations, traffic stops and arrests,
according to an advocacy group that filed a lawsuit in Atlanta Wednesday.

Instead, the group says, the money ends up in "slush funds" with
little oversight.

The Institute for Justice is asking the Superior Court to order the
Fulton County sheriff and the Atlanta and Fulton County police forces
to produce the annual reports documenting the use of seized assets in
2008, 2009 and 2010 they are required by Georgia law to maintain. The
organization said the three agencies failed to produce reports for
public scrutiny as required by law.

Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos declined to comment on the
case, citing the pending litigation. Tracy Flanagan, spokeswoman for
the Sheriff's Office, declined to comment on the suit but said in 2010
the sheriff used forfeited funds to spend $2,333 on weapons and
protective gear.

Attempts to get a response from the county police were

"Law enforcement should follow the law," said Anthony Sanders, one of
the lawyers who filed the suit. "Georgia law enforcement agencies
simply choose to ignore Georgia law."

Civil forfeiture laws allow police to petition a court for seized cash
and assets the department claims were illicit gains or tools in a
criminal enterprise. The law doesn't require authorities to secure a
criminal indictment or conviction but requires the property owner to
show in court he got the assets legitimately.

Sanders said the lawsuit targeted Fulton law agencies because its
named plaintiffs are five county taxpayers, but he said the practice
of poor or nonexistent documentation is common throughout the state.
He said the institute randomly requested documentation from 20 Georgia
departments and only two produced adequate responses.

The Washington-based Libertarian group then asked for raw data from
the state's five largest cities and five largest counties. Savannah
was the only department in a major metro area following the law,
Sanders said.

"Our purpose is to uphold the law, said Julian Miller, spokesman for
the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department. "We certainly
intend to abide by the law ourselves."

Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs
of Police, said he would like to believe most departments filed the
reports annually, but he cautioned against concluding that even the
violators were using the funds willy-nilly. The money is usually
divided among agencies involved in an investigation, with 10 percent
going to the district attorney's office, he said. A court has to
approve the disbursement of funds to the agencies.

"The police agency can't just seize the money and use it," Rotondo
said. "Generally those funds have to be earmarked for specific areas;
most commonly they go to training and sometimes it is allowed for
equipment. They can't use the money for anything they want."

Sanders said ensuring police properly use the money is why they're
required to include each year's forfeiture reports -- which are to
detail forfeitures and how they were used -- when they make their
budget requests to their local governments. Rotondo said departments
violating the law risk becoming ineligible for federal or state grants.

The institute claims Georgia's forfeiture laws are among the most
unfair nationwide and that too often the seizures aren't properly
documented. The looseness of the law means law enforcement officers
have incentive to target property instead of focusing on building
strong cases against criminals, Sanders said.

The institute cited examples of questionable use of seized money. One
was the Camden County sheriff spending $90,000 in forfeiture funds to
purchase a Dodge Viper, said Bob Ewing, institute spokesman. Another
was the Fulton County District Attorney's Office using seized money to
buy football tickets, Ewing said.

Attempts to get responses from District Attorney Paul Howard and
Camden Sheriff Tommy Gregory were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Rotondo said that while some purchases might look questionable they
could be legitimate. For instance, the money can go for use in
undercover work, Rotondo noted, and a Viper might be used by an agent
posing as successful drug dealer.

"It is very possible that they allowed the purpose of that piece of
equipment," he said. "You can't drive down the road in a [police]
Crown Victoria and buy drugs."
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