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Tenn. lawmakers urged to keep asset forfeiture law intact

Opponents argue that the practice has become an overused tactic that violates citizens’ private property rights

By Erik Schelzig
Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Law enforcement officials on Monday urged Tennessee lawmakers not to join other states in dialing back police powers to seize cash and vehicles without first gaining criminal convictions.

While police defend civil asset forfeiture as a way to weaken lucrative criminal operations while funding crime-fighting efforts, opponents argue that the practice has become an overused tactic that violates citizens’ private property rights — especially when there’s insufficient evidence of a crime.

Conservative billionaire Charles Koch and the American Civil Liberties Union have forged an alliance to promote reining in the ability of police to seize property. They are touting as a national model a New Mexico law enacted this year requiring criminal convictions before authorities can dispose of seized assets.

Shelby County prosecutor Steve Jones, who also represents the West Tennessee Violent Crime and Drug Task Force, called it “government at its very best” to use criminal proceeds to fund law enforcement activities. He also warned members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee that changing the law could result in more crime.

“If you want to make a difference for our communities, take away criminal proceeds forfeiture funding,” he said. “You’ll make a huge difference, it just won’t be a positive difference. The criminals will thank you.”

Republican Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville bristled at the suggestion that lawmakers might be working on behalf of criminals by seeking to “protect the innocent who are occasionally caught up in this system.”

“It’s almost like you were trying to set up that you’re either for us or you’re for the criminals,” Bell said.

Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, the president of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, also urged lawmakers not to base policy on the rare instance of law enforcement abuse of forfeiture programs.

“It seems that many in our country are jumping on knee-jerk reactionary bandwagons that are the result of isolated incidents that may get misrepresented,” Rausch said.

“To take away this ability to impact crime in our state because of a few bad apples would be a travesty,” he said. “It would make Tennessee the haven for criminal gangs and a hub for criminal enterprise.”

Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Tracy Trott said that since the beginning of 2014, all but 2.5 percent of assets seizures came in cases where arrests were made. But the THP’s largest-ever seizure of $4.1 million came in 2011 stop where troopers found the money in vacuum-sealed money stuffed in cases of waters in a tractor trailer.

The driver of the truck claimed no knowledge of the money and was not arrested, Trott said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Kelsey questioned whether it would make more sense for any proceeds from seizures to go to the state’s general fund for appropriation back to law enforcement agencies instead of being kept by them on the front end.

Jones, the Shelby County prosecutor, said it would be an unwelcome change to make that money subject to the state’s budgeting process and what he called “governmental red tape.”

“You would call it that,” Kelsey shot back. “But we would call it the legislative process.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press