The Court of Appeals transferred this appeal to this Court because it was equally divided on the disposition of the appeal. 1
The appeal concerns an in rem forfeiture complaint filed by the State pursuant to OCGA 16-13-49
following the alleged sale of cocaine by the appellant, Miguel Rojas, to undercover agents. The sales allegedly occurred at Mr. Rojas's place of business, Universe Wrecker Service. Rojas answered the complaint, but now concedes that his initial answer was insufficient to meet the pleading requirements of OCGA 16-13-49
(o) (3). Rojas also filed an amended answer beyond the 30-day period granted in 16-13-49
(o) (3) for filing an answer. The trial court granted the State's motion for a judgment of forfeiture, ruling that Rojas's initial answer was insufficient, and that, under the authority of Jarrett v. State of Ga., 2
his amended answer could not relate back to his initial one, and therefore was untimely. Rojas then appealed to the Court of Appeals. He contended that the trial court erred (1) in ruling that the State's complaint complied with the pleading requirements of 16-13-49
; (2) in ruling that the notice of seizure provided to Rojas in the complaint was sufficient to satisfy 16-13-49
(i) (3); (3) in denying Rojas's motion to suppress the order of seizure; 3
and (4) in ruling that Rojas's amended answer could not relate back to his timely-filed but admittedly insufficient initial answer. All ten judges of the Court of Appeals found Rojas's first three contentions to be without merit. However, the court evenly split on the last issue, and thus transferred the appeal to this Court.
1. We conclude that the trial court did not err in denying Rojas's motion to suppress or in denying his motion to dismiss the State's complaint.
2. Rojas concedes that his initial answer was insufficient to satisfy the pleading requirements of 16-13-49
(o) (3), but contends that his amended answer should relate back to the filing of his initial answer, and that the trial court thus erred in striking his amended answer and in granting a judgment of forfeiture. We agree, and thus reverse.
Under OCGA 9-11-81
the amendment provisions of OCGA 9-11-15
of the Civil Practice Act, including the relation back provisions of 9-11-15
(c), apply to forfeiture proceedings unless "specific," "expressly prescribed" rules of the forfeiture statute conflict with the amendment provisions of the CPA.
With this principle in mind, we will examine whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding in Jarrett 5
that an amended answer under the forfeiture statute cannot relate back to a timely-filed initial answer. In reaching its holding, the Court of Appeals relied on our decision in State of Ga. v. Alford 6
and on OCGA 16-13-49
(o) (4). In Alford, this Court was required to interpret OCGA 16-13-49
(o) (5), which provides that, "[i]f an answer is filed, a hearing must be held within 60 days after service of the complaint unless continued for good cause." More specifically, we had to interpret whether the phrase "an answer" included any answer that was filed in the forfeiture proceeding or only those answers meeting the special pleading requirements of 16-13-49
(o) (3). We held that the hearing requirement of 16-13-49
(o) (5) was invoked only when a legally sufficient answer, i.e., one meeting the pleading requirements of subsection (o) (3), was filed. Significantly, in determining whether Alford's answer was sufficient to satisfy the pleading requirements of subsection (o) (3), this Court specifically considered the amended answer that Alford had filed. We concluded, however, that the amended answer was legally insufficient.
Citing our decision in Alford, the Court of Appeals in Jarrett reasoned that an answer that was insufficient to meet the pleading requirements of 16-13-49
(o) (3) was the equivalent of "no answer" for purposes of 16-13-49
(o) (4), which provides that "[i]f at the expiration of the period set forth in paragraph (3) of this subsection no answer has been filed, the court shall order the disposition of the seized property as provided for in this Code section." 7
The Court of Appeals thus concluded that an amended answer could not relate back to a timely-filed first answer. 8
We conclude that the Court of Appeals erred in Jarrett in holding that an amended answer cannot relate back to a timely-filed initial answer, and we therefore overrule that portion of the Jarrett decision. First, subsection (o) (4) of OCGA 16-13-49
is silent regarding amendments; it simply provides that if "no answer has been filed, the court shall order the disposition of the seized property." Based upon its plain language, this provision cannot reasonably be construed as a specific, expressly prescribed procedure in the forfeiture statute that is contrary to the amendment provisions of OCGA 9-11-15
Moreover, the effect of a legally insufficient answer on 16-13-49
(o) (5), as interpreted by this Court in Alford, and on 16-13-49
(o) (4), as interpreted by the Court of Appeals in Jarrett and other cases, does not place those subsections specifically at odds with the amendment provision of the CPA or with the provision that amendments relate back to the filing of the original answer. The reason is that, as represented by our consideration of Alford's amended answer, the provisions can be easily harmonized as follows: Amendments to answers in forfeiture proceedings are permitted, and they relate back to the initial answer, thus meaning that any amendment to an answer under 16-13-49
must be considered to have been filed within the 30-day limitation of 16-13-49
(o) (3), and must be considered in determining the legal sufficiency of a property owner's answer under 16-13-49
(o) (3). If, however, the answer and the amendment are legally insufficient under 16-13-49
(o) (3), then the rules established by this Court and the Court of Appeals governing the impact of a legally insufficient answer on the forfeiture proceedings come into play. This construction of the CPA's amendment rules and the forfeiture provisions is consistent with our treatment of Alford's amended answer and with one of the purposes of 16-13-49
-- "to protect the interests of innocent property owners." 10
For the foregoing reasons, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand the case for the trial court to consider Rojas's amended answer in light of this opinion.
Daniel J. Porter, District Attorney Gwinnett Circuit, amicus curiae.