Originally published by David Seal in the Jefferson County Post
In 2014 the amount of property and cash seized by federal law enforcement under civil asset forfeiture was $4.5 billion. That figure does not include the billions in cash and property seized by state governments. According to FBI data, the amount taken in the United States by criminals that same year was $3.9 billion, making 2014 the year that federal civil forfeitures exceeded acts of larceny. Once property is seized, the odds are stacked against the owner in getting their property back, see IJ.org research report and informative video linked here.
In Tennessee, once a forfeiture warrant is approved by a local judge, the disposition of property seized by local law enforcement is processed administratively by the Department of Safety and Homeland Security (DOSHS), not by a criminal court, not within a criminal proceeding, and the property owner is not entitled to court-appointed counsel if they cannot afford one. Administrative judges hear forfeiture cases in Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis; and few attorneys are versed in the complex laws that allow the state to confiscate and forfeit cash and property without a criminal conviction or charges being placed. In most cases, travel time to one of the DOSHS offices for a hearing, loss of work, attorneys’ fees, and the expense of posting a $350 bond make most forfeitures financially impractical to fight. As a result, seized property is forfeited by default. Cash forfeitures in Tennessee exceeded $11 million in 2019.
Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) is proposing legislation to eliminate the $350 bond that is required when the subject of property seizure requests a forfeiture hearing. Representative Rusty Grills (R-Newbern) is the House Sponsor. Niceley and Grills are being praised by activists across the state for their reform bills.
“When the state and law enforcement are taking more cash and property than criminals, you know it is time to do something about it. My bill addresses the bond that is required to have your day in court to get your property back. The bond requirement needs to be eliminated”.
Senator Frank Niceley
Legislators have entertained several reform bills in recent legislative sessions and conducted hearings on the subject. Law enforcement agencies, the financial beneficiaries of forfeitures, have historically opposed forfeiture reforms contending that cash and property forfeitures provide much-needed funding to fight crime. Opponents of forfeiture cite constitutional due process issues, fairness, and question the effectiveness of forfeiture in fighting crime. The forfeiture issue remains hotly debated.