Tyrone chief decries changes to seizure laws

Tyrone Police Chief Brandon Perkins is concerned about proposed state legislation that would make it more difficult for law enforcement to seize cash, cars and other property used in the drug trade.

In a letter to Tyrone residents, Perkins notes that such seizures are one of the best ways to hit drug dealers where it hurts most: in their wallet. Because many drug offenders only serve two or three years in prison, going after the money produced by their organizations is one of the most effective ways to combat drug criminals, Perkins wrote.

Perkins is asking residents to contact legislators Rep. Virgil Fludd, D-Tyrone and Sen. Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, to fight House Bill 1, a 91-page bill that would enact sweeping changes to all forms of law enforcement seizures from those selling drugs to gambling and prostitution operations.

According to the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, House Bill 1 would make it more difficult to seize weapons used by drug dealers and also make it easier for parties not involved in the drug transaction to potentially claim ownership of the property.

The bill also changes the burden of proof in seizure cases from “a preponderance of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.”

HB 1 also makes it easier for a person unrelated to the crime to argue that the property in question should not be forfeited. Such a person would have to show they did not consent to the crime, did not know that it was likely to have occurred, and they did not own a motor vehicle specifically jointly with the person whose crime allowed the forfeiture process to convene, among several other requirements.

Three of the co-sponsors of HB 1 are attorneys: Republican Representatives Wendell K. Willard, Edward H. Lindsey Jr. and Democrat Representative Stacey Y. Abrams.

Perkins said he agrees with a portion of the bill which strengthens the reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies to disclose what property they have seized. He also acknowledged that some law enforcement agencies apparently aren’t meeting the current reporting guidelines. Dealing with those issues can be handled by sanctioning those particular law enforcement agencies instead of making it more difficult on all police agencies, Perkins said.

“My concern is that they’re making it harder for law enforcement to seize the proceeds of criminal activity,” Perkins said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

Forfeited drug money also helps police departments such as Tyrone pay for training and equipment, lifting the burden on taxpayers, Perkins said.

Tyrone gets its federal drug seizure funds through participation on the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department’s Tactical Narcotic Team, which secures seized funds through federal drug seizure laws, Perkins said. Those funds have paid for new police cars, computers and report-writing software, shotguns for all officers and a recent renovation of the department’s basement to add office, storage and training space, Perkins said.

Because those funds were available, it relieved Tyrone taxpayers of the burden for paying for them, Perkins added.

“I don’t think citizens realize how much drug money helps us run our agencies and diminishes our draw from public funds,” Perkins said.

The basement renovation cost about $100,000 and the computers cost upwards of $80,000 for example, the chief noted.

Perkins said he understands the concern of some interest groups backing the bill who think law enforcement targets certain people for seizures. As far as the Tyrone department is concerned, the agency does not directly seize any items or money, though it benefits from such seizures conducted by other agencies.

Perkins said he feels that drug seizures should not be considered “a free for all” for police to take items and cash to help their budgets. At the same time, he doesn’t want to see seizure restrictions become too burdensome on law enforcement.

“Our mission is to get drugs off the street, not seize people’s property,” Perkins said. “But in cases where we can legally use that against them, we should be able to do that and I don’t think the state should be tying our hands.”