In comic books, when innocent people's property is stolen, heroes in masks arrest the nogoodniks and turn them over to law-enforcement officials. But what should happen when people's property is being stolen by local law enforcement - and being taken away secretly, in violation of state law? The video below suggests that masked heroes are called for once again:
Of course, in the real world, we don't have masked heroes to set wrongs aright. That's why today my colleagues at the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit in Georgia that's designed to bring that state's civil-asset forfeiture programs out of the shadows once and for all.
What is civil-asset forfeiture? Well, most people have a pretty straightforward idea of how the criminal-justice system works: If the police suspect you of a crime, they can arrest you and - if you are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt - you can be punished. But if the police suspect your property was involved in a crime, the process called "civil asset forfeiture" allows them to seize and sell your property without even proving a crime was committed - much less that you're guilty of anything. Georgia's civil-forfeiture laws are among the worst in the country: Not only can local law enforcement seize and sell your property without proving any crime was committed, they're actually allowed to keep up to 100% of the proceeds for themselves. This creates an obvious incentive for police to go after people's property instead of going after criminals.
The only silver lining in Georgia's law is that it doesn't allow this to happen in secret. State law requires local law-enforcement agencies to report both how much they seized through forfeiture and detail what they did with the money.
Many, if not most, law-enforcement agencies in Georgia have responded to this reporting requirement in an amazing way: They ignore it. The state law is perfectly clear that these reports are required. Local officials frequently just fail to create them. According to a new report by Erin Norman and Anthony Sanders, Forfeiting Accountability: Georgia's Hidden Civil Forfeiture Funds, out of a random sample of 20 different law-enforcement agencies, exactly two were producing the required data.
That failure is the heart of today's lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of five taxpayers in Georgia's Atlanta and Fulton Counties. The premise is simple: Law enforcement should follow the law. And, while Georgia's law allows for shocking abuses of property rights, it does not allow these abuses to be kept secret. Public disclosure of how much property local authorities are seizing and what officials are buying with the proceeds is meant to provide a check on local officials' power. Keeping the seizures secret is just a way of circumventing that check - and it's something we at IJ plan to put a stop to once and for all.
This is what courts are for. Citizens shouldn't be at the mercy of local officials' whims - but that is exactly where Georgia's taxpayers are left when they ask what happens to most asset-forfeiture proceeds. The judicial system is meant to ensure that all government officials obey limits on their power, whether those limits come from statutes or from the Constitution, and lawsuits like this ask for no more than that.
The idea that government officials can steal your property without even proving you've done anything wrong is repugnant. The idea that they can do so in secret is doubly so. Today's lawsuit will help ensure that the secrecy is stopped, which is the first step toward stopping stealing as well.