Civil Asset Forfeiture is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States. It is a process by which local, state, and federal government seizes private property and cash, theoretically to impede criminal activity. Asset forfeiture is big business in Tennessee with law enforcement agencies seizing about $14 million of cash per year, mainly from West-bound motorist on state highways. Suspicion alone can trigger a forfeiture. No criminal conviction is required, thus the name “civil asset forfeiture”.
“Once property is forfeited to the government, law enforcement can collect up to 100 percent of the proceeds, which provides them with a strong incentive to pursue civil forfeiture. Research by the Institute for Justice found that between 2009 and 2014, Tennessee agencies forfeited almost $86 million in cash. (That figure does not include proceeds from cars, electronics, and other physical property, so the true value of forfeiture funding is even higher.) But where that money went remained a mystery”. – Nick Sibilla, Institute for Justice
As with all major industries, the asset forfeiture business has powerful lobbyists, making legislative improvements difficult. Until recently, Tennessee Code required scant reporting of the value of seized property, and no reporting of how seized cash was expended. Constitutional issues and a new buzz-phrase have emerged.
“aggressive use of forfeiture proceedings has in recent decades become a favorite means of levying fines and is a practice that is often oppressive, unfair, and constitutionally dubious in its own right.” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847 (2017)
Recognizing the issues of fairness and constitutionality, 3 states have abolished civil asset forfeiture entirely, while 15 other states have adopted reforms to require a criminal conviction as a condition of forfeiture. Tennessee is not among those states. In fact, Tennessee ranks 26th in “equitable sharing”, and has one of the worst overall forfeiture records in the nation. The process of “equitable sharing” may be used to circumvent state protections from forfeiture. Under this process, state authorities yield forfeitures to federal authorities and the proceeds are split, 20% to the feds and 80% to the state. Tennessee receives nearly $5 million from the Department of Justice, and just under $1 million from the U.S. Treasury annually through equitable sharing. This amounts to Tennessee’s cut of $7.5 million in additional federal cash forfeitures annually.
Adding to the constitutional issues, Tennessee law, under criminal code, defines the process of asset forfeiture as “civil in nature”, therefore a defendant may not be entitled to court appointed counsel. Most often, the poor just lose their property or cash. Recently proposed legislation (HB0421/SB0316) to require a criminal conviction for asset forfeiture was abandoned in the Tennessee General Assembly due to pressure from special interest groups, including law enforcement and local governments that are increasingly dependent on asset forfeitures to generate operating revenue.