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‘Policing for Profit’ Discussion Coming Up Again in 2015 Legislature

TN in middle of national controversy over forfeiture laws

Drug-enforcement cops confiscating large sums of cash from motorists on Tennessee highways has been issue that’s gotten more and more attention the past few years, both from media outlets and state policymakers.

The practice of law enforcement officers seizing a person’s money or property without charging them with any actual crime has come to derisively be known as “policing for profit.” It has been explored in depth on a number of occasions over the past few years in Tennessee, in both investigative news pieces and legislative hearings. And Volunteer State cops have been among those nationally who’ve been mocked for assuming their legal authority includes the power to purloin.

The Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Beacon Center of Tennessee recently announced they’re teaming up to push legislation in the upcoming session to reign in forfeiture abuses by police.

One issue critics have taken with the operation of the state’s drug task forces is that they’re funded through asset seizures, which they say creates an incentive to seize cash and property, rather than focusing on drug seizures.

Beacon’s “top priority will be to send all forfeited property to the state’s general fund,” according to a statement from Lindsay Boyd, the center’s policy director. Taking this step would “remove the perverse incentives associated with the current system” by stopping officers from lining “agency budgets with the proceeds confiscated from search and seizures,” she said.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director Tennessee ACLU, said a step in the right direction would be to remove the appearance of the profit-seeking incentive. She added that they would also like to see a requirement for arrest and conviction before property can be seized, as well as shifting from the individual to the government the burden of proof to justify a seizure. Law enforcement agencies should also provide better data in instances where property or cash is seized from individuals, in order for the state to discover the true “extent and prevalence” of the practice, Weinberg said.

Both organizations said they’re still in discussions with lawmakers to work out the specifics of the legislative action.

State Sen. Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican and lest session’s chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, has said he is working on a bill to address the matter, but the particulars aren’t nailed down. “I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I’m going to approach this,” said Bell, who chaired a Senate hearing last year that took a look at the oversight of the state’s Judicial Drug Task Forces. He added that he expects several bills dealing with the issue this year.

In Georgia last year, the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity teamed up to push legislation that would require greater oversight and scrutiny of law enforcement and prosecutors use of assets seized in investigations.

Federal officials with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program also recently released a new code of conduct for how law enforcement officers should handle themselves in drug interdiction stops.

And this August, the voters of Tennessee’s 23rd Judicial District — which has been one of the districts at the center of the the policing for profit controversy — elected Ray Crouch as the new district attorney general.

Since being elected, Crouch has pledged his DTF will no longer use the practice to confiscate anyone’s property unless a crime can be proven. Additionally, he said his agency will be more focused in the future on seizing drugs coming into Nashville, as opposed to snatching the money leaving.

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