Bill Restricting Police Asset Forfeiture Advances in House, But Support Tepid

If the cops don’t arrest you, they shouldn’t be able to take your stuff.

That’s the basic idea behind a measure that appears to have bipartisan support in the Legislature. It was sketched out by lawmakers involved with the “Civil Asset Forfeiture Caucus” that was initially convened last week by Republican Blountville Rep. Timothy Hill.

However, while House Bill 1096 ultimately passed the lower-chamber Civil Justice Subcommittee on Wednesday, it floundered briefly as a result of indications by Hill that the legislation hasn’t been completely “worked out.”

Subcommittee member Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said he wants to “make certain if something passes we don’t make Tennessee suddenly the transportation central for drug money back and forth.”

The subcommittee voted in favor of advancing the legislation to full committee, with the understanding that the amendment would be fully worked out by next week.

Civil forfeiture has been a hot topic in Tennessee, as well as around the country. News Channel 5’s several years of reporting on the practice of “Policing for Profit” — whereby law enforcement agencies seize money or property from motorists without arresting them — has garnered national attention.

The legislation is co-sponsored by a former law enforcement officer Bud Hulsey, a Republican state representative from Kingsport.

Hulsey told TNReport Monday night that he’s hoping to “force civil forfeitures back over to the criminal side.” The thrust of laws governing police asset forfeitures ought to be “if you don’t have a criminal charge, we don’t take people’s property away, which aligns with the Fourth Amendment,” he said.

Prior to the start of the session, the free-market Beacon Center of Tennessee and the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union announced a coalition to deal with the “Policing for Profit” issue.

Lindsay Boyd, the Beacon Center’s policy director, told TNReport this week that her organization is “generally supportive” of the legislation.

“It’s not the ideal piece of reform we’d like to see,” she said, but added that it’s “a step in the right direction.”

Boyd said that ideally law enforcement agencies should be banned from directly benefiting from property seizures. That would be a positive step toward alleviating the profit-seeking “perverse incentive” that appears at least partly responsible for motivating unjust asset forfeitures, she suggested.

Senate Bill 1001, the upper chamber companion sponsored by Strawberry Plains Republican Frank Niceley, has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.