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Bill would cut revenue stream for law enforcement

Kevin Sproul

Kevin Sproul

As your Sheriff, I must pay attention to legislation being proposed in Atlanta to see the impact that it may have on the safety and well being of our citizens here in Dougherty County. The media does a great job of spotting bills that may spark controversy and bringing them to the public’s attention. There is one bill, however, that seems to be running under the radar of public attention; one that may have a significant impact on you.

House Bill 1, also called the Georgia Uniform Civil Forfeiture Procedure Act, has been introduced by Rep. Wendell Willard. It is a 90-plus page bill that consolidates all civil asset forfeiture actions in the areas of gambling, liquor, RICO and drugs into one procedure and transfers condemned property and cash directly to the county government or municipal corporation rather than allowing the assets to be used at the discretion of law enforcement.

I have several concerns about this bill. House Bill 1 makes it more difficult to seize assets. In court, the burden of proof is always on the state. This bill raises the burden of proof in asset forfeiture cases from “preponderance” to “clear and convincing evidence.” That makes the state’s job more difficult and will surely result in fewer forfeitures.

Currently, seized property or cash may be used by the law enforcement agency that made the case against the offender. As your sheriff, I have used such funds to purchase equipment for our investigators, pay for a website to better track sex offenders, repair damage from lightning strikes at the jail, and replace equipment that failed during the year that was not planned for in our budget. I have also used these funds to pay for training in specialized areas that are not state mandated. The only other alternative would have been to use funds from our operational budget, which comes from the county’s general fund. Making these purchases using seized funds means that we didn’t have to use tax dollars.

House Bill 1 would change that. Real property would end up in a land bank and unusable by law enforcement. Seized cash could be funneled back to the law enforcement agency, but the amount would be limited. The bottom line is that House Bill 1 will result in fewer assets being condemned through the forfeiture process, and law enforcement only getting a portion of those that do. Not having that resource for tax-free funding of equipment will require law enforcement agencies to place a greater burden on the taxpayers.

There is one other aspect of House Bill 1 that concerns me. With the current state of the American penal system, non-violent crimes often get the shortest sentences. This includes drug-crimes. Often, it seems like the forfeiture of assets is the most meaningful punishment that we can give to a drug dealer. Seeing their houses and cars being seized and used by law enforcement has much more of an impact than spending a few months in prison.

I am not alone in this opinion. Last week, as the State House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on this bill, I stood with over half of the sheriffs of Georgia to oppose this legislation. I see this bill as a step in the wrong direction and encourage you to learn more about House Bill 1 and contact your state representative to let them know how you feel about it.

Sheriff Kevin Sproul is a longtime resident of Dougherty County. He is a graduate of Albany High School, Darton College and LaGrange College of Albany. Sproul has been employed with the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Office since 1982 and can be reached at (229) 430-6508.

Comments

Trustbuster 1 year, 7 months ago

We should heed the sheriff's advice.

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LoneCycler 1 year, 6 months ago

The ability of the police to seize private property for their own financial gain is clearly a potential corrupting influence. The proposed changes to forfeiture laws would require the police to meet a higher standard of proof to show that the seized property was obtained or used in illegal activity. As it is now the forfeiture laws do not require the police or district attorney to demonstrate that the owner of the property is guilty of criminal misconduct. Forfeiture of property in Georgia often happens even when criminal charges have not even been filed against the property owner. The new laws would also punish departments that do not report their income from forfeitures or how that income was used. This will prevent police departments from establishing slush funds they can use however they see fit. Sheriff Sproul and his use of funds obtained through forfeiture is exemplary, and it’s too bad that all law enforcement agencies don't have such honest and forthright men leading them. But we are a nation of laws, not a nation of men. Someday the Sheriff will retire and who knows whether or not another Woody Hart will step into his shoes. Where will citizens be then? The forfeiture laws in Georgia threaten the property rights of all citizens and not just those of the drug dealers.

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