A bill giving new protections for people involved in civil asset forfeiture has now passed both houses of the Tennessee legislature. If Governor Haslam signs it into law, it may become easier for people to regain property seized by law enforcement.
The bill passed the State Senate with unanimous support and was supported by both civil rights and libertarian groups. “This is a rare bill because you had the ACLU on one side and the Beacon Center on the other, and they both agreed on it,” said Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), who cosponsored the bill.
Civil asset forfeiture is a process where law enforcement officials can take possession of a person’s property or money if it is suspected of having been involved in criminal activity. It is legal in most states, and in Tennessee, property can be seized without a criminal conviction or even criminal charges being filed.
Prosecutors, police chiefs, and sheriffs have strongly supported the practice, arguing that it targets suspected criminals such as drug traffickers. Law enforcement uses the proceeds of civil asset forfeiture to fund future operations, which critics argue amounts to policing for profit.
During hearings last year, the House Civil Justice Committee heard horror stories of Tennessean’s attempts to regain their property after it was wrongfully seized. An attorney from Knoxville spoke of how a woman had been stopped under suspicion of drunken driving. She was charged for possessing prescription drugs for sale; these were later shown to be antacids bought over the counter. Law enforcement seized her car and the $11,000 in cash she had on her. The cash turned out to be the legitimate proceeds from the sale of her late mother’s property. Although the woman’s case was thrown out, she had a confusing and lengthy fight to regain both her vehicle and her money.
In another case, Mount Juliet police went to the home of Lewis Cain and seized his BMW. Law enforcement said Cain’s son had been seen selling cocaine from the car. The ACLU argued law enforcement had taken the car without a forfeiture warrant and so had violated Cain’s rights under the Fourth Amendment. Further, the ACLU said Cain’s son had been misrepresented as owner of the car in police reports.
The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security later dismissed the state’s claim to the car and returned it to Cain. “I have the utmost respect for law enforcement, but the Fourth Amendment has to mean something,” said Cain. “I hope that now the police learn that they can’t just take people’s property for no reason.”
The new bill states that the property owner must be notified within five business days of the Notice of Forfeiture Warrant Hearing. Wrongfully seized property must be returned within five business days after an order of dismissal. The bill also says that seizing agencies must pay attorney fees in cases of wrongful seizure, not to exceed 25 percent of the property or $3,000, whichever is the lesser.
“Tennesseans should not have their property seized without being charged with, or convicted of, a crime. … This bill brings much-needed reforms which should drastically curtail the practice of civil asset forfeiture,” said Tori Venable, executive director of Americans for Prosperity–Tennessee.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
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