Pubdate: Wed, 15 Jun 2011
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2011 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Steve Visser, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Faced with a lawsuit, the Atlanta Police agreed Tuesday to start
following state law and document how it spends the hundreds of
thousands of dollars it receives annually in cash seized from suspects
in criminal investigations.

The Washington-based public-interest law firm, Institute for Justice,
filed the lawsuit earlier this year in Superior Court after the
group's research found no police department in metro Atlanta
documented its use of seized cash and other assets as state law
required. The only major Georgia police department following the law
was Savannah, said Anthony Sanders, a lawyer with the libertarian group.

Sanders, who represented five Fulton County residents who opposed the
practice, contended the cash operated as a "slush fund" of unaccounted
money. The Institute determined one sheriff in South Georgia purchased
a Dodge Viper with seized cash, which ostensibly was used in a
drug-education program.

The lawsuit also targeted the Fulton County Police and Sheriff's
Office as well as the APD, the largest police agency in the state.

Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford signed a consent decree
Tuesday in which the Fulton County Police Department and Sheriff
Office agreed to start documenting the asset seizures. The City of
Atlanta, which produced documents showing seizures and expenditures,
will enter into a similar decree within a month, its lawyer said.

"The bottom line is you got their attention and they're going to start
accounting," Bedford told the Institute.

The APD documents showed reams of line items of jewelry, cars,
electronics but mostly of cash seized during raids and arrests.

The documents said the department spent between $258,000 and $567,000
a year of seized cash, much of it on consultants, travel and supplies,
including "consumable" ones, but were not more specific.

Atlanta Police Department spokesman Carlos Campos said the department
would not comment on the documents because the case is still in
litigation. He said the department also would not verify how much it
took in seized cash.

Atlanta Police and other law-enforcement agencies seize assets of
people they suspect of criminal activity even if they are never
charged with a crime. The civil forfeiture law requires the suspect
prove to a court he or she acquired the property legally to reclaim

Law officers call seizures a crucial weapon against organized crime
and drug traffickers who often are difficult to prosecute, but Sanders
said the APD reports showed much of the cash came from shallower pockets.

"When you look at the cash forfeitures, many of them are less than
$1,000, which means that most of them didn't come from drug kingpins,"
he said. "The accounting doesn't tell you whether the people were
prosecuted or convicted but most likely they were not."
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