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GA Court of Appeals Affirms Forfeiture Due to Defective Pleadings

June 10, 2013

In Howard v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that two pro se claimants failed to adhere to Georgia’s pleading requirements when answering the State’s in rem forfeiture complaint and affirmed the trial court’s decision to strike their answers.

In 2012, Crisp County law enforcement seized approximately nine ounces of marijuana in addition to $4,269 and a 2006 Ford Econoline Wagon from property owners Steven Howard and Monica Mosley. The State later filed a forfeiture complaint asserting that the currency and vehicle were subject to forfeiture as they were used to facilitate violations of the Georgia Controlled Substances Act.

In her answer to the forfeiture complaint, Mosley claimed that she owned the Econoline Wagon and was an innocent owner in that she had no knowledge of the unlawful drug activity. Howard asserted that he lawfully owned $966 of the currency and that those funds were not subject to forfeiture. Both claimants filed their answers without the assistance of an attorney, and neither answer was properly verified under penalty of perjury.

After filing their answers, Howard and Mosely moved for summary judgment. The State then filed a cross-motion for summary judgment contemporaneously with a motion to dismiss the claimants’ pleadings on the grounds that the answers were not verified as required by Georgia asset forfeiture law. After a hearing on the motion to dismiss, the trial court ordered that the claimants’ answers be dismissed. As a result, the currency and vehicle were forfeited to the State.

Howard and Mosley appealed the trial court’s order striking their answers and forfeiting their property. They claimed the trial court should have granted them an opportunity to amend their answers to comply with the pleadings requirements. Finding no error, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision.

For an answer to comply with Georgia’s forfeiture pleading requirements, it must be verified by the claimant—an act which can be accomplished by signing the verification under oath before a notary. Howard and Mosley conceded that their answers were not adequately verified. However, they still contended the trial court should have given them a chance to amend their answers and cited a provision of O.C.G.A. § 9-11-15 which allows parties to amend their pleadings as a matter of course before the entry of a pretrial order.

The Georgia Court of Appeals pointed out that despite the ability to amend their answers to correct the verification issue, Howard and Mosley never actually took advantage of this opportunity—even after they were alerted to the problems with their pleadings months before the hearing on the State’s motion to dismiss. Although the Court acknowledged the claimants were without lawyers, it did not excuse them from any of the pleading requirements or impose on the State a requirement to assist them with the drafting of their answers. Thus, the Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the claimants’ answers.

This case highlights the importance of retaining a Georgia attorney who specializes in asset forfeiture cases. Georgia and Federal asset forfeiture procedures are especially complex and it is virtually impossible for anyone to handle one of these cases without significant experience in this area. Even experienced lawyers, who are not familiar with asset forfeiture procedure, have difficulty drafting pleadings that are in compliance with the rules. Our firm has handled many complex asset forfeiture cases in Georgia as well as in federal court. Please click here to read about some of our successful results in this area.

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