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Group says ruling mandates government follow forfeiture statute

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(The Center Square) — The government must allege elements of a crime and provide factual allegations for each element in a civil forfeiture complaint to seize someone’s property, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled, according to a nonprofit civil liberties law firm.

The state’s highest court issued its opinion in a case involving a pair of related Bainbridge scrap metal recycling and waste companies.

In December 2021, the state filed an “in rem civil asset forfeiture complaint” against more than $1 million in accounts, vehicles and property, alleging the assets were contraband and subject to forfeiture under the Secondary Metals Recyclers Act. Prosecutors subsequently filed two amended complaints, broadly alleging the company bought stolen catalytic converters or “other regulated metals” from third parties.

The Supreme Court reversed, vacated and remanded elements of the case.

The court affirmed the trial court rightly denied a motion to dismiss the complaint for not holding a bench trial promptly or continuing it.

Justices overturned trial court and Court of Appeals rulings that found the second amended complaint adequately alleged the “essential elements” of theft by taking. The court remanded the case for additional proceedings since the trial court and the Court of Appeals did not address “whether the second amended complaint adequately alleged the essential elements of any criminal offense other than theft by taking.”

A “civil forfeiture complaint must, at the very least, ‘recite the language of the statute that sets out all the elements of the offense charged or allege the facts necessary to establish [a] violation of a criminal statute,"” the court ruled in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Verda M. Colvin.

The Institute for Justice, which filed an amicus brief in the case, said the Peach State has some of the worst protections against forfeiture abuse. The group gave Georgia a D-minus in its “Policing for Profit” report.

“Georgia’s protections for property owners in civil forfeiture cases are already some of the weakest in the nation, and they were at risk of being watered down even further by the lower courts,” Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dan Alban said in an announcement. “But [this] decision ensures that law enforcement still must satisfy basic pleading requirements by alleging each element of a crime and the facts it believes indicate the crime was committed before it can seek to permanently forfeit someone’s property.

“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,” Alban, who co-directs IJ’s National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse, added. “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.”

In an email to The Center Square, South Georgia District Attorney Joe Mulholland said, “We are pleased with the ruling and look forward to proceeding further.”