An effort that was underway in the Tennessee Legislature to curb the potential for cops to abuse their property-seizure powers has stalled for the year.
Blountville Republican Timothy Hill, who’d been leading the asset-forfeiture reform push, said law enforcement interests in the state had balked at going along with any substantive departure from the status quo for fear it would hamper their ability to continue waging the war on drugs.
He said “the concept” of restricting asset forfeiture to instances where an arrest is made or a court order is obtained “has the support of many in our chamber.”
Nevertheless, lawmakers “need a little more time to work on the finer points” with members of the law enforcement community, Hill said Tuesday in the House Criminal Justice Committee.
The “huge question” perplexing legislators is, “How do we move forward protecting the rights of our individual citizens while stifling the drug trade that is so rampant in the state of Tennessee?” he said.
More ‘Summer Study’ Needed
Hill said that during the summer, he would be meeting with interested parties to get more input and spend more time on “figuring out that huge question,” and next year “move forward with a comprehensive approach.”
Hill’s initial measure would have moved asset forfeiture from the civil side of the law to the criminal side by requiring an arrest before any property or proceeds from crime could be seized by the law enforcement agency.
However, Hill’s proposal had been passed by the lower chamber’s Civil Justice Subcommittee in March, with the expectation that the amendment would be fully hashed out by the time it came before the full committee.
Civil Justice Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg — a public relations and advertising executive from Bristol — praised Hill’s decision. “I think it frankly very wise that you put those folks around the table from TBI, our state troopers, because this is a — it seems very simple, but I think as we’ve all found out it’s a very complex piece of legislation.”
The New Mexico Legislature recently passed a proposal to limit the state’s law enforcement agencies’ forfeiture powers by requiring a conviction before allowing property seizures, as well as funnelling proceeds of forfeitures into a state general fund instead of sending it directly to the seizing agency’s coffers.
Delay Disappointing to Rights Advocates
Lindsay Boyd, policy director for the free-market Beacon Center of Tennessee, told TNReport Tuesday morning she was discouraged law enforcement anxieties look to have again won out over concerns about citizens’ constitutional rights.
“We’re disappointed that he decided to summer-study it, because the issue’s been studied — we know that there’s an abusive practice going on,” Boyd said. She added that Hill had received a lot of pushback from the law enforcement community on his legislation, despite having a co-sponsor in Bud Hulsey, a freshman Kingsport Republican and retired police lieutenant.
Boyd said that enough had been done to “try to get the law enforcement community to at least acknowledge that reforms need to happen,” and Beacon would have preferred he push the legislation anyways, “even if it meant that it came up for a vote and failed to get the votes.”
In Late 2014, Beacon and the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had announced a coalition to reform civil asset forfeiture to address the issue of “policing for profit” — whereby law enforcement agencies seize cash and property they suspect of having ties to criminal activities, but without any solid evidence of wrongdoing.
Boyd told TNReport that the coalition’s proposal — carried by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell of Riceville and freshman Republican Rep. Martin Daniel of Knoxville — had been tabled until 2016 partially as a result of Hill sponsoring a bill that was “a small step in the right direction.”
Because of Hill’s effort, the coalition felt like it could take more time to “incorporate a multi-faceted approach” and get a “more robust piece of legislation” with a greater number of co-sponsors, Boyd said.
Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.