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2013 Lump of Coal Award Goes to Law Enforcement Agencies Guilty of ‘Policing for Profit’

Press release from The Beacon Center of Tennessee; December 17, 2013

NASHVILLE – The Beacon Center of Tennessee today announced that Tennesseans have overwhelmingly chosen the 23rd Judicial District, and Cheatham, Dickson, and Humphreys Counties as the recipients of the 2013 Lump of Coal Award.

The Beacon Center awards this dubious distinction annually to the person or group in Tennessee who, more than any other during the past year, acted as a Grinch to Tennesseans by bah-humbugging the principles of liberty and limited government.

The judicial district and three counties have become infamous for their use of a controversial tactic known as “policing for profit.” Abusing the state’s civil forfeiture laws, the agencies have begun seizing cash, vehicles, and other personal items in traffic stops, forcing the property owner to prove that the cash or property was not related to criminal activity. Innocent victims often spend months attempting to recoup seized property, sometimes to no avail.

An in-depth documentary by Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 revealed troubling facts about the practice, such as substantially more traffic stops on westbound Interstate lanes—where cash proceeds from drug sales frequently flow—while drugs traveling in the eastbound lanes were reportedly allowed to pass unfettered. Officers were also caught on camera admitting that they had little evidence that property was associated with a crime before seizing it anyway.

After the Beacon Center narrowed the list of offenders down to four finalists, the recipient of the Lump of Coal Award was chosen directly by Tennesseans in an online poll. The four law enforcement agencies received the most votes for the not-so-coveted prize, beating out Metro Nashville Public Schools, the Department of Labor & Workforce Development, and Hemlock Semiconductor with 40 percent of the vote.

“Tennesseans have sent a clear message that ‘policing for profit’ will not be tolerated,” said Beacon CEO Justin Owen. “This practice turns the Constitution on its head, and it’s time for lawmakers to heed the outcry of law-abiding citizens who want their property rights protected from this abuse, while still preserving the authority of law enforcement to target criminals.”

State legislators have indicated that they will study this issue and offer possible reforms to the state’s civil forfeiture laws when they reconvene next month. Earlier this year, the Beacon Center published a policy brief on the practice, which can be found at http://www.beacontn.org/2013/03/the-perils-of-policing-for-profit/.

The Beacon Center of Tennessee’s mission is to change lives through public policy by advancing the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government.

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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.

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Press Releases

New Beacon Center Brief Analyzes Practice of ‘Policing for Profit’

Press release from the Beacon Center of Tennessee; March 18, 2013:

NASHVILLE – The Beacon Center of Tennessee today published a new policy brief on the disturbing practice of “policing for profit.” The brief, titled The Perils of Policing for Profit, analyzes civil asset forfeiture laws, which have recently come under fire throughout the state.

Across Tennessee, law enforcement agencies are seizing money, cars, and other property based on the mere suspicion that the property is related to criminal activity. In some cases, tens of thousands of dollars worth of property or cash is seized, yet the property owner is never charged with a crime.

The brief reviews the perverse incentives created by this practice, which has led to the confiscation of more than $1.6 billion worth of property nationally. However, due to the lack of transparency related to Tennessee’s forfeiture laws, the amount seized within the state’s borders remains unknown.

“Policing for profit is an alarming practice that ensnares innocent victims, turning the American concept of justice on its head through a presumption of guilt,” said Trey Moore, Beacon Center’s director of policy and co-author of the brief. “Lawmakers should eliminate the perverse incentives for law enforcement to seize property absent proof that a crime has actually occurred.”

The brief calls for the outright ban of the practice by strengthening the legal standards used to permit law enforcement to seize property. Short of eliminating the practice altogether, the brief offers several intermediary solutions. They include placing civil forfeiture revenues in a neutral fund that cannot be used by law enforcement; transferring the burden of proof from the property owner to the government; reporting of seized property to promote more transparency; prohibiting ex parte hearings; allowing property owners to recover their losses and costs if the property is returned; and the termination of equitable sharing arrangements between local law enforcement officials and the federal government.

Several state lawmakers have filed bills related to this issue. Those measures are slated to be heard in legislative committees over the coming days.

The policy brief can be downloaded at: http://www.beacontn.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Perils-of-Policing-for-Profit.pdf