Effingham County Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie has asked state lawmakers to reconsider a piece of legislation that he and other sheriffs believe will make it harder to seize criminals’ assets.
In an open letter to Effingham residents, McDuffie pointed out what he believes to be wrong with the HB 1, known as the Georgia Uniform Civil Procedure Act.
According to the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, the proposed law would require law enforcement to provide an inventory of any seized assets and estimated value or the property could be released back to its owner. Currently, property and money seized by law enforcement may be seized, and the district attorney can begin forfeiture action. HB 1 would raise from 20 days to 30 days the time law enforcement has to notify the district attorney.
Within 60 days, any seized money will go to the superior court clerk to be deposited in an interest-bearing account.
“It has long been my personal observation that over 90 percent of the crime in our county and state is directly associated in some way with illicit drugs,” he said. “The so-called ‘War on Drugs’ in this country has been a dismal failure, and the fact of the matter is illicit drug dealing is the most profitable business in America.”
The sheriff said he and his deputies “have vigorously enforced” drug laws, but “no matter how hard we work, the problem persists.”
McDuffie said some drug offenders serve only one to two months per year out of a prison sentence before being released.
“Doing two or three years on a 20-year sentence is just a cost of business for them,” the sheriff said. “After all, they simply go away to a clean, air-conditioned facility where they are fed three meals a day and have all of their medical needs taken care of during their relatively brief visit.”
McDuffie said the most valuable tool law enforcement has in penalizing drug dealers is being able to seize their property and cash.
“These laws have enabled us, after judicial processes are completed, to take the cars, cash, and property of criminals,” he said. “This, in the end, seems to be the only thing that really hurts them.”
Current state statutes call for the district attorney to publish a notice of seizure for personal property valued less than $25,000. If the property’s owner does not file a claim, the DA may distribute the proceeds. HB 1 puts a cap on this type of forfeiture to $5,000.
McDuffie said the seizures have saved taxpayers a “phenomenal” amount of money. Those seizures have allowed the sheriff’s office to purchase many of the pistols, shotguns, rifles and special weapons for deputies, a neighborhood speed trailer, a jail transport van, drug, training and crime scene unit vehicles, covert surveillance equipment, crime scene investigation equipment and materials and money used to make undercover drug buys and pay informants.
“The aforementioned items are just a partial list of the things we have acquired with seized assets,” McDuffie said. “I could write page after page describing numerous other things we have done with the property and money obtained as a result of our existing seizure and forfeiture laws.”
Legislation passed last year that made some crimes that had been felonies into misdemeanors shifted the cost of incarcerating those prisoners from the state to the local level, McDuffie added.
“As incredible as it might seem, this year there is an effort being brought forth in your General Assembly that will make it significantly much more difficult for us to seize and condemn the money and assets of criminals,” he said.
HB 1 keeps the provision that a law enforcement agency cannot use forfeited money for more than one-third of its budget. Forfeited funds over that amount may be directed toward indigent defense, drug treatment, mental health treatment and victim-witness assistance programs.
Forfeited money also cannot be used for law enforcement salaries or bonuses and it cannot be used to supplant law enforcement budgets.
But it’s the new provisions in the law that change how seized and forfeited property is disbursed that has McDuffie asking residents to implore their representatives to vote no.
HB 1 has been favorably reported by the House Judiciary Committee.
“I can categorically say that the provisions of this bill will only benefit criminals and the lawyers who represent them,” McDuffie said. “Our existing seizure laws have been repeatedly upheld by the appellate courts, and there is no problem with the laws we have in place.
“If HB 1 is passed, it will literally debilitate the law enforcement community to a point where we will see little public benefit in enforcing the law when it comes to drug dealers and other criminal entrepreneurs.”