Tennessee Hearings Demonstrate Absurdities Of Asset Forfeiture

11/22/2013 10:28 am ET | Updated Nov 25, 2013
  • Radley Balko Senior Writer and Investigative Reporter, The Huffington Post

Here in Nashville, the state legislature held hearings this week on "policing for profit," the catchy name the libertarian public interest law firm the Institute for Justice has given to the practice of civil asset forfeiture.

The hearings were inspired by some terrific reporting done by local television journalist Phil Williams over the last couple of years about how the practice is used and abused in central Tennessee. Basically, if you're carrying a large amount of cash, and someone from one of these task forces pulls you over, they feel they have the authority to take your money from you. It's then up to you to prove you earned it legitimately. The stops can quickly devolve into shakedown operations, in which a motorist is told he can face arrest, or he can give the police all of his money and go free.

Some of the exchanges between Tennessee lawmakers and personnel from the local drug task forces were downright surreal. A few excerpts from the testimony, via Newschannel 5:

Senators especially wanted to know about a traffic stop exposed by NewsChannel 5 Investigates where an agent from the 23rd took $160,000 from a New York businessman, using federal seizure laws, even though the officer admitted on the video there was no evidence tying it to drug trafficking.

"I don't know honestly if we can, if we can't link it to drugs, it's still a currency violation," he told a fellow officer.

There's no such thing as "a currency violation." It isn't illegal to carry cash, even in large amounts. But of course, they took the money anyway. The head of the task force then offered a bizarre, implausible explanation for the seizure.

"I can tell you that money had terrorist ties overseas -- I will tell you that," he told the subcommittee.

"Then why was it returned to him?" asked Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who chairs the full Senate Judiciary Committee.

"The DEA returned it to them, we didn't," Hicks said.

In fact, our investigation discovered that the U.S. Attorney's Office returned the man's cash more than a year later after investigators could not make any kind of a case.

"When they were pressed on it when there was a case pending in federal court, when it was put-up-or-shut-up time, they couldn't produce a single shred of evidence to support these allegations," said the businessman's attorney, Olin J. Baker of Charlotte, N.C.

"At this point, they are making things up that's absolutely not true."

Not just "not true," but a preposterous, feeble attempt to justify an unjust practice by appealing to fear.

Task force director David Hicks then conceded that because the agents are funded by the money and property they seize from motorists and drug suspects, his cops "know that if the money dries up, then they don't have job."

It's great that Tennessee lawmakers are finally up in arms about this. But it's been going on for years. Even if you support the drug war, consider the incentives here: There's actually a greater incentive for police to target drivers leaving a large metropolitan area than the drivers entering one. Why? Because any member of a drug distribution networking entering a city is likely to be flush with drugs. Those leaving a city are likely to be flush with cash. It's better for police to wait until the drugs are sold and out on the street. And, indeed, Williams' investigations have found exactly that: A driver is much more likely to be pulled over by the task force while driving in the lanes leading out of the city than the lanes leading into it.

I really encourage you to check out Williams' entire series on forfeiture in Tennessee. So much local TV news reporting is silly, sensationalist pap. Williams puts out top-shelf journalism, and not just on the forfeiture issue.

In other forfeiture news, the aforementioned Institute for Justice won an important battle last week when the IRS decided to halt its attempts to seize money from the owners of a small Michigan grocery store. The federal government had no evidence of any drug activity, but were still attempting to take $100,000 because the owners were making bank deposits in increments less than $10,000. The IRS considers that "structuring," or an attempt to get around federal laws that require banks to report any transactions over that amount. The grocery store owners pointed out that they made deposits when they did because if they are robbed or suffer a fire, their insurance policy doesn't cover cash amounts over $10,000. The IRS backed down, but the Institute for Justice and the grocers are pressing on to challenge the constitutionality of such seizures without at least granting property owners a preliminary hearing.

Finally, while not completely related to asset forfeiture, I'd just warn HuffPost readers that you don't want to get caught driving through Ohio if you have any "secret compartments" in your car. It doesn't matter whether you have anything illegal in them or not. It doesn't even matter if they're empty. Under state law, the compartments themselves are a felony.

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