GOODWIN v. STATE of Georgia.
-- March 14, 2013
Following a bench trial in this in rem civil forfeiture action, Tasha Goodwin forfeited $14,350 to the State on the ground that it was used to facilitate the possession, sale, and distribution of marijuana. Goodwin appeals,1 arguing that the trial court (1) failed to conduct a hearing within 60 days of the forfeiture complaint being served, as required by OCGA § 16–13–49(o)(5); and (2) erred in finding that the money was subject to forfeiture based on it being used to facilitate a drug transaction. Because we conclude that the hearing on the forfeiture action was untimely, we reverse.
Following a traffic stop involving Goodwin's vehicle, the Butts County Sheriff's Office seized $28,700 that it alleged was being used to facilitate the possession, sale, and distribution of marijuana. On August 19, 2011, the State filed, pursuant to OCGA § 16–13–49, a complaint for forfeiture. Service of the complaint was then perfected on Goodwin on August 24, 2011. Goodwin timely answered, averring that (1) she owned fifty percent of the seized money (i.e., $14,350); (2) the money came from lottery winnings, legal settlements, death benefits, tax refunds, and profits derived from operating a beauty salon; and (3) the money was being used in order to hire an attorney to represent her fiancé in a habeas-corpus action pending in Calhoun County. A notice of hearing was issued on September 26, 2011, setting the forfeiture hearing for October 26, 2011–63 days after the service of the complaint on Goodwin. For reasons not contained in the record, the hearing was continued on October 26 and two additional times before eventually being conducted on March 21, 2012. Following the March 21 hearing, the trial court issued an order and judgment forfeiting Goodwin's money to the State. This appeal follows.
1. Goodwin argues that the trial court's judgment of forfeiture must be reversed because the trial court failed to conduct a hearing, or continue the hearing for good cause, within 60 days of the service of the State's forfeiture complaint as required by OCGA § 16–13–49(o)(5). We agree.
OCGA § 16–13–49(o)(5) provides that in a civil-forfeiture action, “[i]f an answer is filed, a hearing must be held within 60 days after service of the complaint unless continued for good cause and must be held by the court without a jury.”2 The Supreme Court of Georgia has held that this 60–day hearing requirement is mandatory, not permissive,3 reasoning that the requirement “is consistent with the apparent purpose of that paragraph, which is to ensure a speedy resolution of contested forfeiture cases in the courts, as well as a speedy resolution of property rights.”4 Thus, it is the duty of the State to obtain a continuance if it “does not invoke a hearing within the 60–day period or otherwise avoid the necessity of the hearing, e.g., by obtaining a dismissal of an answer.”5 The result of a failure to conduct a hearing within 60 days, or to obtain a good-cause continuance, is a dismissal of the State's complaint.6
In the case sub judice, it is undisputed that the initial hearing on the State's forfeiture complaint was not scheduled until 63 days after Goodwin was served with the complaint, and the State neither moved for, nor did the trial court grant, a continuance within the statutorily imposed 60–day time period.7 And because the mandatory statutory time limitations contained within OCGA § 16–13–49(o)(5) were not met, we are constrained to reverse the trial court's judgment of forfeiture.8
2. Because of our holding in Division 1, we need not address Goodwin's remaining enumeration of error.
ELLINGTON, C.J., and PHIPPS, P.J., concur.