After a lively debate, the Metropolitan Council of Nashville, Tennessee has agreed to renew its participation in a controversial federal civil asset forfeiture program called “equitable sharing.” Opponents from both the left and the right argue the program encourages “policing for profit.”
Civil asset forfeiture is the legal procedure where law enforcement can seize an individual’s property or cash without filing criminal charges. In most states, all that is required is the suspicion that the property was involved in a crime. In a criminal case, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution. In Tennessee, in cases where a vehicle is seized, however, the burden of proving innocence lies with the property owner.
Earlier this year, Tennessee’s governor, Bill Haslam, signed into law reforms of the state’s civil asset forfeiture procedures. The new law requires the state’s law enforcement agencies to disclose where money from civil asset forfeitures is spent. Between 2009 and 2014, law enforcement seized $86 million in cash, yet there has been no reporting on where that money was spent. Additionally, while there are statewide records of how much cash was seized at this time, there are no records of how much physical property—for example, vehicles and electronics—were seized during this time.
The libertarian Institute for Justice (IJ), which has long opposed the practice of civil asset forfeiture, applauded the changes but sounded a cautionary note. “By itself, improved transparency cannot fix the fundamental problems with civil forfeiture—namely, the property rights abuses it permits and the temptation it creates to police for profit,” said Jennifer McDonald of IJ.
Further, while these reforms apply to forfeitures carried out at the local and state level, they do not appear to apply to the federal equitable sharing program. In the period between 2009-2014, Tennessee law enforcement agencies received an additional $69 million in funds from equitable sharing.
Equitable sharing is a type of civil asset forfeiture where local law enforcement partner with the feds on a case. The federal government keeps 20% of the proceeds; the regional law enforcement agency receives the remaining 80%. As part of the program, the law enforcement agency has to keep the money for itself. In other states where restrictions have been placed on civil asset forfeiture, agencies use equitable sharing to avoid these restrictions and keep the money for themselves.
Critics of civil asset forfeiture and equitable sharing argue the programs give police departments an incentive to seize property, leading to what’s known as “policing for profit.”
Councilman Freddie O’Connell argued against Nashville renewing its participation in the program. He represents a low-income neighborhood; such neighborhoods are often the most affected by civil asset forfeiture. Innocent owners may not be able to afford a lawyer to help retrieve their property.
In the end, the argument came down to the city’s need for cash. The fire department and schools are in need of money. The new police oversight board will cost an additional $1.5 million. More money is needed, and equitable sharing provides needed funding for law enforcement.
In voting in favor of continuing equitable sharing, Councilman Doug Pardue, a former police officer vented his frustration. “It’s obvious the damn council isn’t going to help them [Nashville law enforcement],” he said. “They beg for equipment, and that’s what this money is used for.”
The measure passed 25-5 in favor with two abstentions.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.