Georgia Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Property Rights in Landmark Civil Asset Forfeiture Case

Georgia Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Property Rights in Landmark Civil Asset Forfeiture Case

This Thursday, the Georgia Supreme Court released a unanimous judgment, which opponents of civil asset forfeiture hail as a triumph. Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process that allows authorities to seize property they believe was involved in or generated from a crime, even if no one has been charged.

The Supreme Court ruled that the government must follow state law by alleging and providing proof for each element of a crime.

The court heard a case in which Decatur County Police seized property from the proprietors of SmithCo Recycling LLC, a small scrap metal and waste-carrying business. The company was at the center of what authorities described as a criminal enterprise that purchased and concealed stolen catalytic converters.

Catalytic converters are exhaust system components that reduce pollutants to less hazardous emissions. Because they are easily accessible on a vehicle’s underside and contain valuable metals such as platinum, palladium, and rhodium, they are popular targets for thieves. Georgia legislation specifies who can sell catalytic converters to metal recyclers.

On December 3, 2021, the state filed a civil asset forfeiture lawsuit against the confiscated property, which included SmithCo Recycling’s business address.

On February 18, 2022, the state filed a second amended complaint, alleging that the owners or workers purchased catalytic converters or other regulated metals that they “knew or should have known were stolen,” stole roll-off containers, enlisted others to buy scrap vehicles or stolen catalytic converters, and conducted business without required documentation.

Lawyers for the accused requested to dismiss the case, stating that the second complaint did not meet the legal criteria of alleging the “essential elements” of the criminal breach that justified asset forfeiture.

The two main parts of theft by taking are: unlawfully stealing another’s property with the aim to deprive the legitimate owner of the goods.

The trial court and the Georgia Court of Appeals both ruled that the state met its obligation, with the Court of Appeals noting that “the second amended complaint does not explicitly allege that the catalytic converters or the roll-off containers were taken with the intent to deprive the rightful owners of the property, the requisite intent can be inferred from the allegation of the complaint.”

But the Supreme Court disagreed.

“While these allegations about the purchase and sale of property known to be stolen may create an air of criminality, they fail to allege any facts showing that any person unlawfully took another’s property ‘with the intention of depriving him of the property.'”

Advocates argue that the evidentiary standard for civil asset forfeiture is much lower than that for obtaining a criminal conviction, and that, while it is intended to disrupt organized crime, the targets are typically low-income people or members of minority groups who have not been charged with a crime and have little recourse to claim abuse.

The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to combating government abuse, gave Georgia a D- for its civil forfeiture laws, citing a low bar of proof for seizing property, inadequate protections for innocent property owners, and a significant profit motive for law enforcement agencies.

“Georgia’s protections for property owners in civil forfeiture cases are already among the weakest in the country, and they were at risk of being weakened even more by lower courts.

However, today’s decision ensures that law enforcement must still meet basic pleading requirements, such as alleging each element of a crime and the facts it believes indicate the crime was committed, before seeking to permanently forfeit someone’s property,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dan Alban, co-director of the IJ’s National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse.

“Not only is that required by Georgia statute, but it is a basic requirement of due process for someone to know what the allegations are so that they can defend against them,” he stated. “This decision is a victory for property rights, but much more work needs to be done to fully protect property owners in Georgia from forfeiture abuse.”

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