Beacon Center: Civil Asset Forfeiture No Laughing Matter

Op-ed from Beacon Center of Tennessee President Justin Owen, October 16, 2015:

In a recent hearing, Tennessee law enforcement officials urged state senators to stay the course on civil asset forfeiture laws. Civil forfeiture laws allow police to seize Tennesseans’ private property without ever arresting, charging, or convicting them with a crime, as groups across the spectrum including Beacon and the ALCU have exposed.

Police have a strong incentive to use—and even abuse—this practice, because 100% of the proceeds go right back into their operations. Want another drug dog? Seize some more property. Want a new tricked out Tahoe SUV? Take some more cash.

Tennessee has been on the front lines of this debate, with embarrassing actions even exposed on national TV outlets, such as this gem of an inquiry by a Tennessee police officer of a Hispanic driver:

Tenny mucho mucho deniro in su trucky-trailer?

Apparently, that roughly translates into “Do you have any money in your trucky-trailer that I can falsely claim is revenue from drug sales and seize without your permission?”

As if this wasn’t funny enough, law enforcement officials upped their game in this week’s Senate hearing, coining the term “criminal proceeds forfeiture funding” to describe the process by which they steal from unsuspecting citizens. That’s quite the rebrand. The problem with this term is that the police never have to arrest you for a crime to seize the “criminal proceeds” thereof. They never even have to allege that it is related to a crime at all; they merely have to suspect it. To say that the money the police seize is always from criminal proceeds is egregiously misleading and misses the point.

Beacon will continue to work with groups — including those we disagree with more often than align — to expose this practice for what it is. Tennesseans and tourists alike have a right to travel about our state free from the threat of their property being seized to fund police operations. And law enforcement should expect that we fund their departments sufficiently through the proper budgeting process, rather than encouraging them to fund their operations by seizing property. For the sake of both innocent victims and law enforcement officers, we must do better.

Despite some pretty comical actions by law enforcement recently, civil asset forfeiture abuse is no laughing matter.