Supreme Court issues three rulings on Smith v. The State civil-asset-forfeiture proceedings

Published 1:18 pm Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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ATLANTA- The Supreme Court of Georgia issued a ruling in Smith v. The State on May 29, 2024, answering two of three questions brought before them.

The case arose from an appeal of the civil-asset-forfeiture proceeding against Stacey and Garrett Smith, where the Decatur County Sheriff’s Office seized over $1 million held in various bank accounts, along with property that the DCSO alleges was used, intended for use, or derived from various crimes, including the the theft, purchase, and sale of catalytic converters.

In the complaint to the Supreme Court of Georgia, the Smiths moved to dismiss the civil-asset-forfeiture proceeding due to what they called a failure in holding the bench trial in a timely manner.

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Bench trials are required to be held within a 60-day time period, unless granted a continuance.
Documents show that on December 3, 2021, the State (DCSO) filed a civil-asset-forfeiture complaint against SmithCo. Recycling at their business address. The owners, Garrett and Stacey were then served on December 6, 2021, only three days later.

The Smiths did not respond to the complaint until December 31, 2021, nearly 25 days later, where they then claimed some of the property belonged to SmithCo Transfer.
The State then filed a motion to join SmithCo Transfer as a party to SmithCo. Recycling on January 13, 2022, which SmithCo Transfer answered on January 21.

Mere days later on January 24 and 25, all parties corresponded with a trail judge about possible trial dates in February 2022. However, on January 31, the case was re-assigned to another judge. At a hearing before the new judge on February 10, the court decided the trial would be continued until March 9-11, 2022 for good cause.

The Supreme Court was required to first decide if this was true and was one of the three questions asked to them.

The Court ultimately decided the trial has been held in a timely manner.

“Considering all of the circumstances, we conclude that Appellants (the Smiths) are estopped from arguing that the trial court or Court of Appeals erred in equating the date that SmithCo Transfer answered the complaint with the date that SmithCo Transfer was served,” Justices penned. “And as a result, Appellants cannot challenge the conclusion’s 60-day time period to hold a bench trial or obtain a continuance, which runs from the date of service on the last claimant, ran from the date that SmithCo Transfer answered the complaint.”
Based on their answer, the 60 days did not begin until SmithCo Transfer answered on January 21, and the first hearing was held only weeks later on February 10.

Granting the first ruling in favor of the State was a win for the DCSO. However, in order for DCSO to win this Supreme Court hearing all three answers have to be ruled in their favor.
The second question the Supreme Court decided was not ruled in their favor and ruled on the side of the Smiths.

In order to seize items in a civil-asset-forfeiture, the complainant (DCSO) must allege the essential elements of the crime. One of the crimes listed in the proceeding was theft by taking. Prior to being brought before the Supreme Court of Georgia, the Appeals Court ruled that theft by taking could be inferred from the other crimes listed. However, the Supreme Court disagreed, challenging the ruling of the Appeals Court.

“The 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 ruling penned.

The final question the Supreme Court of Georgia was required to answer was whether the complaint, at any point, adequately alleged the essential elements of any criminal offense, other than the theft by taking, which had already been ruled on.

The Supreme Court was surprised to find that neither the trial court, nor the the Court of Appeals had ruled on the question prior to it being addressed before them.
“We decline to make such a determination in the first instance,” the Justices concurred.

With all three questions answered, all Justices agreed that the Court of Appeals’ opinions were reversed in part and vacated in part, with the final case remanded.