SOUTH FULTON, Ga. — Under Georgia law, police can seize your property without ever having to prove you did anything wrong in a court of law. But they do have to provide a public record of what they take.
Channel 2 Action News Investigates found a local police department has not been doing that, which Channel 2 consumer investigator Justin Gray learned is a violation of Georgia law.
“I work hard for that money to purchase that van, and I still do not have a van to this day,” said Tatiana Strong.
Three years ago, South Fulton Police seized Strong’s cargo van.
“There was no court case. There was no charges. There was nothing, but it’s gone,” Strong said.
She told Channel 2 Action News that she used the van for her medical supply delivery business.
Police claimed in a forfeiture complaint that the van was actually being used by an acquaintance of hers to transport drugs.
[HAVE A STORY FOR 2 INVESTIGATES? Submit your story idea here]
But while there has never been a criminal conviction or even criminal charge related to the van, police never returned it.
That is how civil forfeiture can work legally.
“There is no requirement that criminal charges be brought and there is no requirement that someone be convicted of a crime,” said Dan Alban, senior attorney with Institute for Justice, a legal non-profit.
“We will never feel comfortable driving this car,” said Karla Hill, whose Dodge Charger was seized along with two other cars.
City of South Fulton police charged Hill with operating a chop shop.
“Were you operating a chop shop?” Gray asked.
“No, we were not operating a chop shop,” Hill said.
She filed numerous complaints with the city of South Fulton and Fulton County about the seizures and a judge ordered South Fulton police to return the Charger.
But the other two cars appear gone for good even before the case has ever gone to trial, and with no court records authorizing the seizures.
“The cars are absolutely gone. The cars have been sold,” Hill said.
Critics said there is an incentive for police to do this.
“In Georgia and many other states, law enforcement gets to keep up to 100% of the proceeds of what they seize and forfeit,” Alban said.
Georgia law enforcement agencies seized more than $51 million in cash and property between 2015 and 2018, according to the Institute for Justice.
One of the legal protections that Georgia law requires is that police departments report what they’ve seized each year to the state and publish it online for all to see.
But Channel 2 Action News found that South Fulton Police never did that.
In fact, when Channel 2 Action News filed a Georgia open records request for the missing data, the city South Fulton Police Department denied it.
The Institute for Justice sued and won a decade ago against other Georgia police departments for violating this same transparency law.
“That’s the bare minimum that you can expect is to ask law enforcement to tell the citizens and the legislature what it is that it’s doing,” Alban said.
“I actually want to thank you all for bringing that to our attention,” said South Fulton Chief Keith Meadows.
Meadows told Gray he did not realize South Fulton was breaking Georgia law until Gray told him.
“Do you think asset forfeiture is an area that’s ripe for potential abuse?” Gray asked Meadows.
“I do. And that’s why I think the transparency piece that you mentioned is so important,” Meadows said.
“Do you think it’s something where you all have made mistakes?” Gray asked.
“It is. That is an area where we have made some mistakes,” Meadows said.
An outside investigation released in the fall of 2022 substantiated a long list of complaints of alleged wrongdoing by the person who headed up the asset forfeiture program, former South Fulton Police Lt. Shannon McKesey.
She resigned in lieu of termination.
Meadows told Gray he hired McKesey specifically for her previous experience with civil forfeiture at the Atlanta Police Department.
“Do you regret putting that trust in her?” Gray asked Meadows.
“I do. Now, the person that I’ve seen right now is not the person that I knew,” Meadows said.
That is why Meadows said he called the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in to investigate.
“Are you going back through these case by case to see if other people who had their assets seized, something might have gone wrong?” Gray asked Meadows.
“Well, that’s what we’re asking the GBI to do. What I want right now is for full transparency. I want there to be an independent view of each one of those files,” Meadows said.
That is every case, including Hill’s and Strong’s.
“I lost a way to feed my family, to feed my husband, to feed my kids. I’m trying not to cry but it’s so upsetting,” Strong said.
Meadows gave Gray a list of asset forfeiture totals and told him they have now uploaded the information as required by law to the state. It’s about $400,000 in cash seized and more than 50 vehicles seized since 2018.
If police use civil forfeiture on your property, there is not much you can do besides hiring an attorney or reaching out to a legal non-profit for help.