Alda Gentile stowed the cash she earned in a plastic cleaning wipes tub, with dreams of buying a condo off Florida’s Atlantic coast.
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Agencies typically seize cellphones, cash and cars in forfeiture cases. Here are the things you wouldn’t expect:
• Brother sewing machine – Columbus Police Department, 2012
• Harley Davidson helmet – Cobb County MCS, 2012
• Picture of Scarface with a gun - Columbus Police Department, 2012
• Sony PlayStation 3 — Albany-Dougherty Drug Unit, 2012
• Top Fin aquarium air pump – Cobb County MCS, 2011
Source: University of Georgia, Carl Vinson Institute for Government website, www.cviog.uga.edu
What is civil forfeiture?
When a law enforcement agency thinks that a property was involved in a crime, it can file a suit asking the court to let them keep it. Sometimes, this is done as part of a criminal case, and property is taken away when the defendant is sentenced.
In Georgia, they can take it through civil forfeiture, a state court proceeding that is completely separate from any criminal case.
The owner, not the prosecutor, would have to show that he or she did not agree to the property’s use in a crime, had nothing to gain from it, and had no reason to think that one was likely.
Crimes that can lead to forfeiture include certain drug, racketeering, gang, and drug offenses, plus shrimping and oil drilling violations.
What’s the difference between federal and state forfeiture?
When local law enforcement helps federal investigators work a case, all agencies get a slice of the proceeds. Sometimes, the feds can win a share even if they did none of the leg work.
Federal agencies seize property involved in crimes that break federal law. Local agencies receive a slice depending on the amount of work they did and existing agreements on sharing the money. The federal cut is generally no less than 20 percent.
In cases where a local agency investigates a crime that breaks both state and federal law, it can let the federal government manage the forfeiture process. The feds get to keep 20 percent for their effort.
The feds won’t take every case. Georgia law lets officers seize anything of value. Federal agencies often won’t take cash or jewelry worth less than $2,000 or cars worth less than $5,000.
How We Got the Story
To find out what agencies seize and how they use the proceeds, the AJC analyzed more than a thousand pages of documents obtained through freedom of information act requests and a website at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute for Government. We selected a portion of these seizures for further review of related police, criminal and civil court filings. Interviews of opponents and advocates for changes to forfeiture law, property owners and attorneys also helped guide our reporting.