I-TEAM: Wife loses late husband’s truck seized in crime case
AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - An Augusta woman reports her truck missing only to discover years later the sheriff’s office recovered it and then sold it.
For Beverly Miller, it was a double blow. First, she lost the love of her life and then she lost the truck they loved together.
“I wish I knew,” Miller says of where the truck is now. “Somebody is driving it and I have no idea who.”
Georgia’s forfeiture law allows the courts to seize a person’s belongings even when the person is innocent of a crime or a victim of a crime.
Senior I-TEAM Investigative Report Liz Owens discovered it can take years to get a lost or stolen item back — if ever.
That’s because possessions seized during a crime become evidence. If the suspect is guilty, the possessions are sold, and profits go to agencies involved like law enforcement. If the person is found innocent, or the possessions seized belong to an innocent third party, we found the burden is on the innocent party to fight the court to get it back.
“Our plan was to eventually live on a cruise ship one day but that wasn’t in the cards.” Miller lost her husband, Richard, four years ago. The pain of her loss is still as fresh as it was then.
“Every second of every day, every minute I mean. I go around and look, and I see all these memories and all these mugs…it’s just heartbreaking, really heartbreaking.”
The heartbreak of losing her husband, Richard, compounded by the loss of his favorite mode of creating special moments.
“We make a little cooler and set it in the back of the truck. … We went to Florida many times in his truck to go on cruises.” Recalling the memories brought Miller to tears.
About eight months after Richard died, her son allowed a neighbor to use the truck to move but then the neighbor and truck disappeared.
“So, my son comes over makes the report all the police told me is when they look up whatever they do in the things — said the man and wife who has is in a lot of trouble.”
She didn’t know them, but deputies did. They had arrested Michelle Davis and Dana Williams along with 25 others on federal drug charges in the Fall of 2018. Seized as evidence during Operation 30906: the old Dodge Dakota.
“I wanted it back for because it meant so much to my husband.” Fast forward through a pandemic, three years, and one lawsuit later. Beverly has no truck.
She won in court but lost to the legal system.
“I call my attorney and say how long is that supposed to take? She said ‘Well, Ms. Miller I just got off the phone with well I can’t think of the name of the new DA and said your truck has been sold’ and I said do what?”
The 2021 ruling states “court further finds Mrs. Miller was an innocent owner and orders the immediate return of Mrs. Miller’s 2006 Dodge Dakota.”
Nearly a year later, the truck along with a piece of her heart is still missing from her driveway.
The ITEAM found Georgia law requires the seizing agency to publish two public notices. First, a notice of items seized and the second, the notice of items to be forfeited.
At that point, the clock is ticking.
Under state law, the ITEAM found a person wanting to get the property back only has 30 days after the publication of the second notice, the notice of forfeiture, to file a claim to get the property back.
Records show Beverly turned over the police report, tag receipt, and a statement to the clerk of court in August of 2018. The DA’s office published the second notice in December - four months later.
In the end, Beverly missed that official 30-day window after the second notice making the sale of the truck by the then DA Natalie Paine legal under the law.
“I went through the court system. It was ordered to be given back to me, but they don’t have it to give back to me.”
The ITEAM reached out to the current District Attorney, Jared Williams. He declined an interview but told us via email:
“When my administration took office in 2021, we took legal action to try and reunite this citizen with her property. "
But at that point, it was too late. Once an item is forfeited, law enforcement auctions it off on govdeals.com.
The Georgia Center for Opportunity is a nonprofit social justice group pushing to reform the state’s forfeiture law: they argue “because the citizen is tasked with proving the property was not used for a crime, the citizen is on the hook for all costs to fight the confiscation which could impact low-income individuals.”
We found only 16 states require a criminal conviction before seized assets can be forfeited. Georgia is not one of those states. Meaning someone like Beverly, an innocent widow whose truck went missing, must file all the proper paperwork within the set deadline and pay court fees to get what belongs to her, back.
“It hurts so bad to know I can’t get it back because someone else is driving it.”
A ride down memory lane now feels like highway robbery.
According to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, the feds distributed nearly $6.9 million in “equitable sharing payments of cash and sale proceeds” to Georgia law enforcement agencies in 2020. More than $5.5 million of that was in cash. Legislation introduced last year seeking due process went nowhere.
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