All four candidates for Coweta County Sheriff agree that care must be taken in confiscating property and that “no-knock” warrants must be used sparingly.
The four candidates – James Callaway, Randolph Collins, Doug Jordan and Lenn Wood – took the stage at Trinity Church near Sharpsburg on Tuesday evening. The Coweta County Republican Party sponsored the forum, and Mike Crane, former state senator, was the moderator.
Voters will choose among the four in the June 18 special election. The election was called when Mike Yeager resigned after being appointed a U.S. marshal.
No-knock warrants are generally used in situations where officers have reason to fear they will be shot if they identify themselves. There have been complaints of overuse of the warrants in some jurisdictions.
Wood, a longtime sheriff’s office employee who is serving as acting sheriff, said local judges are reluctant to sign no-knock warrants. Wood said he could only remember two being issued in Coweta County.
He recalled the circumstances for one of them, when law enforcement officials had knowledge of a large number of weapons in the home.
“It was going to be a danger to the officers,” Wood said.
“There is a place for no-knock warrants,” Collins said. “I don’t believe they should be used excessively.”
In most situations, “a regular warrant is fine,” Jordan said.
Collins and Wood referred to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.
“Everyone has a right to feel safe in their own home,” Wood said.
Collins said no-knock warrants require oversight and accountability, thoughts Wood echoed.
“It is a tool that can be used at certain times. It must be justified,” Collins said.
“It all starts at the top. We have to make sure we pass it down to the guys doing the job,” Wood said.
Crane said Oregon has banned no-knock warrants by statute, and they are forbidden in Florida following a court ruling. He asked the candidates how they would feel about the Georgia legislature addressing no knock warrants.
That idea met with general approval.
“I don’t think there would be a problem with them putting restrictions on a no-knock warrant,” Wood said.
If the state would specify the circumstances in which such warrants could be issued and used, “I think we’ll all be better off,” he said.
Callaway said he would work through the Georgia Sheriff’s Association to get the law changed.
“If the law is broken, let’s fix it,” Collins said.
Civil asset forfeitures are allowed in certain circumstances. In an arrest for drug trafficking, authorities may be able to seize the car in which the drugs were found.
“Each case is different,” Jordan said, explaining that if items are taken, “you keep it until it’s adjudicated in court.”
If the court rules the items may be confiscated, the proceeds can be used for training, cars and other sheriff’s department needs – almost anything except salaries.
Wood said the district attorney’s office “looks at everything we seize.” That process is usually handled quickly.
“If there’s any kind of crime involved in it, and we can prove it in court, we’ll take it,” Wood said.
Callaway recalled an effort several years ago in Clayton County where spas were being used as fronts for houses of prostitution.
“We took a tractor/trailer with us,” he said. “We took the businesses. We took the pictures off the walls, the cash registers.”
He also recalled a case in Morrow where a Dodge Charger was seized when it was used in a drive-by shooting.
“We seized that vehicle because it was a platform for them to commit their crime,” Callaway said.
Callaway said the law is specific about the amount, weights and types of drugs that offenders must have if their property is to be seized. He said the civil seizure cases usually are won “well before the criminal cases go to court.”
“I hate it for you if you are a drug dealer, but we’re taking that money,” Jordan said.
The civil forfeiture process “can be abused,” Collins said. “If it’s used properly, it’s an asset to the community.”
Callaway said it is a myth that it is illegal to have more than a certain amount of money – $10,000 for example. He said extra paperwork is required for banking transactions involving large sums of money, but it is not illegal to hold cash.
Someone with that much money, however, may need documentation of where it came from and where it is going. Wood recalled a situation where a man was stopped with several hundred thousand dollars in a briefcase. The man was able to show he was traveling to Louisiana to purchase tractor/trailers, and he was allowed to continue his travels with the cash.