Turner: Fighting for the Concept of Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Civil Asset Forfeiture, or CAF, is a process whereby law enforcement takes permanent possession of property they suspect is either the proceeds of, or assisting with a criminal enterprise.For example, let’s say you have just sold your car for $10,000 in cash and decide to go to the bank to deposit the money but get stopped for speeding on your way.  When the officer asks you if you have any large sums of cash, you think nothing of answering.  Before the stop is over, he seizes your cash, even if he does not charge you with a crime.

Before the 2015 legislative session, Georgia’s CAF laws were widely criticized as the most draconian in the nation.  Recognizing the need for reform, the General Assembly passed HB 233, which created a detailed process for CAF from the time of the seizure of the property to its eventual disposition.  It is my opinion that the new law is a significant improvement over what was in place before, but still falls well short of what the vast majority of Georgians believe is right: that prior to the state taking permanent possession of property that allegedly is used in connection to a crime, a conviction for that crime should be secured. In other words, we are innocent until proven guilty.

Even with the passage of HB 233, our current CAF laws turn the concept of innocent until proven guilty on its head, forcing you to prove your innocence in order to regain possession of your property. Under current law, the state does not even have to bring charges against you, and they can still take your property away.

Therefore, I have introduced HB 832, which would require a conviction prior to the state being able to permanently take property in this manner.  Before I explain the proposed changes in HB 832, it is important to understand that under current law, the state can now seize and hold property suspected of being related to a crime, and HB 832 does nothing to change that.  Since the authority to seize property under probable cause remains unchanged in HB 832, a drug dealer, or other qualifying accused offender would have their assets seized, but not forfeited, until the outcome of criminal proceedings. Once a conviction is secured, which includes a verdict or plea of guilty, including a plea of nolo contendere, the state would move on to civil asset forfeiture proceedings with the authority to take legal, permanent possession of the property intact. However, if the state does not secure a conviction, then the state would return your property.

This policy shift will create a bright yellow line between the concepts of seizure and forfeiture, which in the minds of many Georgians are currently interchangeable.

The permanent taking of property related to criminal activity is a punishment for that activity regardless of whether we label it a criminal or civil action.  That is why I, like most Americans, believe that a conviction must be secured by the state prior to any punishment levied on the defendant.  It is the right policy because it is in accordance with our core American principles, and that is why I believe it is necessary to pass HB 832.

About the author

Scot Turner

Georgia Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, represents the citizens of District 21, which includes portions of Cherokee County. He was elected into the House of Representatives in 2013, and currently serves on the Agriculture & Consumer Affairs, Science & Technology, Special Rules, State Planning & Community Affairs committees.