ATLANTA - Alda Gentile was not arrested. She was not charged with a crime. Yet police in Georgia seized $11,530 in cash that Gentile said she had in a car for a house-hunting trip in Florida.
Police confiscated the money after stopping the car, driven by her son, for speeding. They searched for drugs but found nothing.
Her case has become a rallying cry for libertarian, conservative and other groups seeking to change laws in Georgia that allow law enforcement to seize property and cash from people who have not been convicted of crimes, a process known as civil forfeiture.
Lawmakers in at least four states have proposed changing similar laws, with varying levels of intensity and success.
Those seeking to change the system say the process allows police to skirt the higher standards of proof needed in criminal trials and puts those who lose property in the position of having to prove their innocence.
"I never even thought it was anything illegal about bringing cash," said Gentile, who got the money back after days of frantic phone calls. "They made me feel like a criminal."
The leader of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association says the success of forfeiture laws cannot be judged based on isolated cases. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, whose agency was not involved in the seizure from Gentile, said the system is supposed to make sure that someone sent to prison for drug dealing cannot enjoy cars and cash obtained through illegal means once they are released. He noted that Gentile got her money back, and he accused his opponents of coddling criminals while fighting against legislation to set stricter rules in Georgia.
"That bill would have only benefited, in my personal and professional opinion, criminals and the lawyers who represent them," he said.
Gentile's case is championed by one of the largest groups seeking change. The Virginia-based Institute For Justice, a libertarian law firm, brought her to testify in support of the bill. Lawmakers are making similar efforts or at least pushing for transparency in Michigan, Minnesota and Texas. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Tennessee voted to give people more rights in forfeiture proceedings.
No single agency in Georgia tracks exactly how much property is seized and how the proceeds are spent. Police agencies are supposed to file annual reports on their seizures and spending, but many ignore the requirement. In 2011, the Institute For Justice successfully sued to force metro Atlanta police agencies to follow the reporting requirements.
Some agencies use the money to buy police weapons, fund education programs or buy office furniture. Other spending is more controversial. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, for example, spent thousands of dollars on security doors to his house and football tickets, according to records reviewed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
After that disclosure, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced this month that he will direct the state's Criminal Justice Reform Council to study changes to the system. The council is supposed to report back to Deal before the start of the next legislative session in January.
"While it's too early to speculate on possible changes, the governor said it's obvious that the system requires more transparency," Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said in a statement.
This year's legislative effort sparked a backlash from sheriffs. They visited the Statehouse, testified against the proposal and met one-on-one with lawmakers. It worked. Facing a likely defeat, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, decided to put off a vote until next year.
"They basically staged an invasion in uniform of the Capitol building and took up most of the space," said Virginia Galloway of Americans For Prosperity, which supported the legislation. "They were down there in force. We kind of joked at the Capitol what a great day to commit a crime in Georgia because every one of them seemed to be here."
For Gentile, her troubles began when a Georgia State Patrol trooper accused her son of speeding on Interstate 95 and pulled over their rental car, according to a police report. Under questioning, Gentile's son, 19, said his mother had cash tucked in a green-and-white wipes container in the trunk.
Gentile said she had talked to a real estate agent about buying or renting a winter home in Florida and brought the money on a road trip during which they looked at homes. Gentile, a limousine driver in New York, said she is paid mostly in cash.
Gentile said she was repeatedly asked whether she or her son had drugs none were found.
Officers used a dog to search her car, but they did not report finding anything or file criminal charges. Records show that a trooper said he seized the cash on the advice of an agent from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
State Patrol Maj. Eddie Grier said officers took the cash because they were suspicious that Gentile could be trafficking drugs. Grier said troopers told him that a police dog indicated it smelled narcotics on the cash, though this was not mentioned in the initial police report. Gentile denies any involvement in drug trade and said she believes police tried coaxing the dog into responding.
Grier ultimately returned the money to Gentile. State and federal prosecutors were not interested in seizing it. Grier said most people involved in drug trafficking would abandon illicit money than risk additional scrutiny trying to get it back.
"I'll be honest with you, I just sort of believed her," Grier said.
No agency in Georgia tracks how often people file legal action or take steps to get their property back, but it does happen. For example, a deputy sheriff in Georgia's Greene County stopped David Bowman for a traffic violation in March 2012 and found what was suspected to be marijuana, according to a police report. Searching the vehicle, police found roughly $15,000 in cash bundled in Bank of America wrappers. Bowman was arrested on a child support warrant in South Carolina, and the cash was seized.
Bowman's cousin, Chicago Bears defensive back Tim Jennings, went to the police station and explained that he had taken out the money from his own bank account to assist his cousin and had bank documents to prove it, Greene County Capt. Scott Smith said. The money was returned to Jennings.
In Texas, Democratic state Rep. Naomi Gonzalez in March introduced legislation that would have forced law enforcement agencies to make detailed filings about their property seizures and spending to the state auditor's office. Later that month, Gonzalez crashed her BMW into another car, injured a bicyclist and was charged with driving while intoxicated. She kept a relatively low profile afterward, and the bill failed.
And a measure in Minnesota would end a system that allows police to seize property in drug cases when a defendant has not been convicted of a crime. In Michigan, Republican state Rep. Tom McMillin said he planned to introduce legislation requiring greater disclosure when police take property.
"I'm interested in incentives," McMillin said. "What are the incentives built into civil asset forfeiture? Where does the money go?"
In Georgia, Willard introduced a bill that would have made it harder to seize property. He found support from the Institute for Justice, Americans For Prosperity, the American Civil Liberties Union and criminal defense lawyers. After the setback in the Legislature, supporters are pressuring the state Republican Party to adopt a resolution calling for better controls.
The bill would have raised the level of proof required before the government can take property. Right now, law enforcement officials need only show probable cause that something was obtained through illicit means before taking it essentially, circumstantial evidence. Willard wants to require that prosecutors show clear and convincing proof, a notch below the standard used to convict in criminal cases.
The measure would also have forced law enforcement officials to make greater efforts to notify owners when property is seized. Police agencies that fail to submit required annual financial reports showing how much they seize and spend could lose the ability to spend confiscated funds for two years.
"We're not picking on law enforcement," Willard said. "I just think they need to be open to public scrutiny like everyone else is."