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Sunday February 7th, 2016 12:42PM

Ralston says changes to Ga. forfeiture law needed

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA - House Speaker David Ralston said Wednesday that changes are needed to Georgia's forfeiture law to increase accountability and transparency and plans a serious look at legislation next year.

Recent reports of questionable spending by two district attorneys have generated a significant amount of public interest in how the government handles money and property seized under the law, said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

"Until we bring greater accountability and greater transparency then we're not going to be able to shine the light on this issue enough to know what appropriate additional steps might be needed," Ralston said in an interview.

A Republican state lawmaker earlier this year withdrew a bill that would have made it harder for agencies to seize property and cash after meeting resistance from elected sheriffs, who argue existing law is sufficient to protect the public. That bill, which remains active for the 2014 legislative session, would also have penalized those agencies who fail to submit detailed spending reports.

Ralston said the proposed bill merits additional scrutiny as well as recommendations that will be coming from the Criminal Justice Reform Council. Earlier this month, Gov. Nathan Deal said he would ask the council to study changes to the forfeiture system and report back before next year's legislative session.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, president of the Georgia Sheriffs Association, said Wednesday the focus should be on enforcing current rules requiring law enforcement agencies to submit spending reports.

"We have existing laws that address both accountability and transparency, and if a sheriff is misusing these funds then that sheriff needs to be indicted, arrested and sent to prison," Sills said. "And we have a pickup truck full of laws that say what should be done and the people who are supposed to enforce that need to do that."

Sills said his group had objected to language in the proposed bill that would have raised the level of proof required before the government can take property. Currently, authorities only need to show probable cause that something was obtained illegally.

"If they raise the burden of proof, then that's only going to make it harder for the state and easier for the criminals," Sills said, arguing current law and the current standard have been ruled constitutional by the courts.

Sills said he supported efforts adding reporting requirements for district attorneys, who are currently not compelled to do so under state law. In recent weeks, a report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard had spent thousands of dollars in forfeiture funds for office parties, church donations and home security updates.

Howard has defended the expenses and requested an independent review. Douglas County District Attorney David McDade has also requested an independent review after use of forfeiture money was questioned in a report by Atlanta's Fox 5 TV.

Ralston said he would support requiring any official or agency that receives funds through forfeiture to be required to submit detailed spending reports and said he hoped to work with the sheriffs' group to find common ground on legislation.

"I'm not sure what the obstacles are, but we're going to identify them and move them out of the way," Ralston said.
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