Judge: DA’s Office Presented “No Evidence” for Basis of Seizing Landlord’s Property in Asset Forfeiture Proceeding

The Ogeechee Circuit District Attorney’s Office lost an asset forfeiture hearing last week in which prosecutors attempted to seize the property of a landlord because of her tenant’s arrest for drugs.

Background on the Criminal Case

Acting on information received in a drug complaint, investigators with the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office began an investigation on January 11, 2023 on a property in Brooklet that was occupied by Lauren Leigh Keaveney. Keaveney, a tenant, consented to the search and Methamphetamine was discovered inside both the residence and in the utility shed on the property. Keaveney was subsequently arrested and charged with Possession of Methamphetamine.

As of July 31, 2023, the criminal case against Keaveney had not been adjudicated. According to the paperwork filed in the Bulloch County Superior Court Clerk’s Office, despite the January arrest, there’s been no indictment on the case and no judicial action since. After a full six months, the case has not even made it to the grand jury, despite grand juries in Bulloch County convening at least three times since Keaveney’s arrest.

Nevertheless, the District Attorney’s Office has filed paperwork to seize the property location where Keaveney was arrested, as well as the mobile home and the shed on the property, despite her not being the lawful owner of the said property. Prosecutors are seeking to do this through a process known as Civil Asset Forfeiture. Read more on the process of civil asset forfeiture here.

The owner of the property, Wendy Walker, who was not the defendant in any pending criminal case, purchased the property at an auction in 2002 and placed a mobile home on the land soon thereafter for the purposes of making an income generating rental property. Though she owns 15+ parcels of land in Bulloch County, working as a landlord is not her full-time job. Now retired, Walker worked for more than 40 years in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.

On the day of the incident when Keaveney was arrested, Walker was not present, nor was she living on the property. For as long as she has owned the property, it has not been a primary residence for her.

District Attorney’s Office Wants to Seize Rental Property Over Tenant’s Alleged Drug Use
Effort by District Attorney's Office to Seize Property

According to the complaint filed by the state in January 2023, the District Attorney’s Office is seeking forfeiture of: 

  • the property itself (0.36 acres of land in Bulloch County)
  • an 18x20 enclosed utility shed
  • a 1999 Fleetwood 14x66 mobile home

The complaint names Keaveney and Walker as ‘interest holders’ of the property sought.

District Attorney Daphne Totten and ADA Barclay Black argued in the filing that the property is ‘contraband and subject to forfeiture’ because the property:

  • “was found in close proximity to the controlled substance, namely methamphetamine”
  • “was possessed, used, or available for use to facilitate a violation of the Georgia Controlled Substances Act”

Walker’s response to the state’s seizure effort is that Keaveney, as a tenant, has no legal claim of interest in the property. Specifically, the response also contends that Walker, as the landlord, was not:

  • Privy to criminal conduct giving rise to its forfeiture
  • Did not consent to the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture
  • Did not know of the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture
  • Did not know the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture was likely to occur
  • Should not have reasonably known the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture was likely to occur, and
  • Had not acquired and did not state to acquire substantial proceeds from the conduct giving rise to its forfeiture other than as an interest owner in an arm's length commercial transaction [the lease]
Judge’s Order 

The case was heard before Judge Ronald K. Thompson on Friday, July 28 in Bulloch County Superior Court. While paperwork for the forfeiture process was signed by District Attorney Daphne Totten and the subsequent filings were made by Chief ADA Barclay Black, the case was transferred to one of the newest ADAs, J.B. Edwards, in the 11th hour leading up to the hearing. Walker was represented by attorneys from Statesboro law firm Taulbee, Rushing, Snipes, Marsh and Hodgin, LLC.  

After the hearing, Thompson determined that Walker was “an innocent owner” under the Georgia law and denied the state’s request to seize her property, her mobile home, and the shed attached to the property.

From an excerpt from the Order filed by Judge Thompson after the hearing:

Unknown to Walker, during Keaveny’s occupancy, a culmination of complaints and probable drug activities led to the January 11, 202 visit by the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office, a consensual search of the premises, the seizing of a small quantity of methamphetamine, and the arrest of Lauren Keaveny and other individuals…

…In sum, no evidence was adduced at trial that Walker was privy to Keaveny’s criminal conduct, consented to or had any knowledge of criminal conduct, had any reason to believe it would or was occurring, or derived any financial benefit from the conduct. 

Though Walker was deemed an innocent owner, she is not entitled to any restitution or compensation for legal fees or other related costs associated with ensuring her property was not seized by the state.

Jessica Szilagyi

Jessica Szilagyi is Publisher of TGV News She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement and corrections. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and a commentator on the 'Let Me Tell You Why You're Wrong Podcast.'

Sign up for her weekly newsletter: http://eepurl.com/gzYAZT

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