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Senators Considering Oversight of State Drug Task Forces

Their budgets are often significantly funded through property seizures and confiscated cash, and their governing rules generally unclear. What’s more, Tennessee’s system of 25 drug interdiction “task forces” appear to be lacking any meaningful oversight.

During a recent state Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing geared toward gaining a better understanding of Tennessee’s drug task force activities, Republican lawmakers appeared to be in agreement that reform is needed.

Chief among the specific concerns expressed by Sens. Mike Bell, Stacey Campfield and Brian Kelsey during the Nov. 20 hearing was how the task forces generate revenue — in particular, their practice of posting up on Tennessee freeways, pulling over motorists and seizing cash from vehicles without making an arrest for any criminal activity.

“A clear governing structure” is needed to address the issues facing the state’s task force operations, Bell said to TNReport. He suggested one possible remedy would be to put them under the direction of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. A similar arrangement is in place in Georgia, he said.

Kelsey said it is obvious “proper oversight” is lacking. “We’re definitely going to have to do something next year, because we have some really bad actors among the drug task forces,” he said.

A joint session of the House and Senate Judiciary Subcommittees will likely meet shortly after the beginning of the 2014 legislative session to consider measures to clarify the purpose, oversight and accountability of the state’s drug task forces, as well as make their operational and accounting procedures uniform across the state, Bell said.

David Hicks, the director of the 23rd Judicial District Drug Task Force, which operates along I-40 in Dickson County, told committee members that his task force’s budget, including the money for agents salaries and bonuses, relies solely on funds received from asset seizures—whether it be cash or through auctioning off seized property. While task force officials generally argue that nobody’s money gets taken unless there’s reason to believe it’s in some way connected to criminal activity, they acknowledge drug cops will sometimes seize cash from a vehicle if the sum is suspiciously large and none of the occupants offers a plausible and legitimate reason for  possessing it.

But media investigations into  “policing for profit” in Tennessee have uncovered instances where it appeared the officers confiscated money from motorists with little or no legal justification. An award-winning, years-long investigative series into the issue by Nashville’s News Channel 5 was discussed extensively during the Senate’s hearing last month.

Hicks said he was hesitant to discuss questions about his agency’s cash-seizing practices “out in public” due to “security problems.” But he invited the committee members to have an “off the record” meeting at his task force headquarters in Dickson to explore the issue deeper.

One case of asset seizure that Hicks was particularly “reluctant” to talk about during the hearing involved the seizure of $160,000 from a New York man traveling through the state. Hicks said it was later determined the man had “terrorist ties overseas.” Nevertheless, the man’s money was returned to him about a year later. Committee members questioned why the money was returned if it had connections to terrorism, to which Hicks replied, “The DEA returned it to him, we didn’t.”

A story by News Channel 5 that ran later in the day following Hicks’ testimony stated “there’s absolutely no evidence that the terrorism claim is true.”

Kelsey, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said a policy of tying a cop’s pay to how much money he or she seizes “just doesn’t make any sense.”

“We’ve got to remove these incentives to go ahead and seize more and more money,” he said.

Bell, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, drew a parallel between the habit of seizing money for funding drug task force operations to the unseemly practice of local police targeting out-of-town motorist not so much out of concern for traffic safety, but to beef up department budgets. Bell suggested it’s not unreasonable to conclude that when any law enforcement agency relies too heavily on funding from imposing fines or expropriating cash, it risks getting hooked on a potent and potentially corrupting financial incentive.

“I think the way they’re set up, it does at least create the appearance that that’s what’s going on — that they have to reach a certain level of funding, or they could lose their jobs,” Bell told TNReport after the hearing.

Bell also said he was disappointed and perplexed that the drug task force witnesses like Hicks didn’t seem better prepared to discuss their agency functions and activities.  “I had a hard time understanding why somebody would come to testify before us who didn’t have any answers to the questions that we asked,” he said.