Marcia Tenenbaum drives a 1990 light blue Lincoln Town Car that no longer belongs to her.
The car is owned by Tennessee after it was seized in a traffic stop along with 15 ounces of marijuana earlier this year.
Tenenbaum's 27-year-old son, Jeremy, and his girlfriend were in the car when Hamilton County Deputy James Makemson stopped it on Jenkins Road in April for an expired tag. Makemson seized three bags of marijuana, $920 cash and the vehicle, and Jeremy Tenenbaum was charged with felony possession of marijuana.
While Department of Safety and Homeland Security records show the car has been impounded since the traffic stop in April, Marcia Tenenbaum said Sheriff Jim Hammond, who was her classmate in college at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, arranged for her to get it back within a few days of her son's arrest.
"I called him. I said, 'I'm disabled. My car's all I got,'" said Tenenbaum. "I was told if my son was ever caught in it again not to call him."
There's just one problem: The car is not the sheriff's to give.
"He can't do that without an order from the [Tennessee] Department of Safety," said Joe Bartlett, staff attorney for the Department of Safety, who handles asset forfeitures. The state never released the vehicle, Bartlett said, and state records show the car officially became state property this week.
After the sheriff's office was contacted Friday, Capt. Bill Johnson, who oversees investigations, said he will open an internal investigation Monday.
"We should not have released that vehicle without an order from the state," he said. "I've got to find out why the car was released. I don't know that this has ever happened before. There's an error somewhere."
Hammond said Friday he doesn't recall anything about the case, even Tenenbaum's name.
Often, Hammond said, if the person arrested does not own the car, the owner gets the car back the first time. Subsequent arrests with the car aren't forgiven, he said.
"The state has to agree to it; it's not something I can automatically do," Hammond said. "I only do it if the detective involved in it says, 'Yeah, this car belonged to the mom; we're not interested in confiscating that car to sell for our narcotics fund.'"
On May 1, the sheriff's office completed a release agreement to submit to the state to allow Tenenbaum to have her vehicle back, Johnson said. However, state records show no record of that, according to Bartlett.
"I wouldn't treat her different than any other case," Hammond said. "Even if she called me and she's my best friend, the state has to agree to it."
This is not the first time Hammond reportedly has intervened in a case.
In January, Hammond made phone calls, including one to the magistrate's office, on behalf of former deputy Lonnie Hood. Hood, who was previously convicted of federal charges, was arrested by Chattanooga police on New Year's Eve for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Hammond received "a call from a crying wife" who used to work for him, and made calls, according to newspaper archives. When Hood was sentenced to community service, Hammond offered to let him perform construction work on a former evidence processing room, according to newspaper archives.
The state's car
The final forfeiture order on the car was issued after Tenenbaum took no action on certified letters explaining how she could argue to keep it at a hearing before an administrative law judge.
Tenenbaum said she never received the notices, but Bartlett said someone signed for the letters.
The appeal process can take months, and Tenenbaum said she couldn't wait. She said she is in remission from cancer and needed the car for doctors' appointments.
Tenenbaum said she paid about $150 to get the car back from the impound lot.
"What he [the sheriff] did for me was a humanitarian thing," she said. "I could not be without my car. It's not much."
Johnson said sheriff's office records show the car was released on May 11 rather than a few days after the arrest.
The final forfeiture order was issued by the state four days ago, and Tenenbaum has 15 days to ask the state safety commissioner to reconsider her case.
She also could file an appeal through Davidson County Chancery Court within 60 days, before the state gives the car to the sheriff's office. It would have to be filed in Davidson County because the safety commissioner is a resident there.
Bartlett said allowing Tenenbaum to have the car appears to violate state procedures. His department routinely offers training for law enforcement agencies to explain the forfeiture process, he said.
Even if the sheriff's office eventually takes the title to the car, Hammond can't give it to Tenenbaum, Bartlett said.
Under state law, Hammond's only options are to put the vehicle in service in the department for up to five years or sell it at auction, Bartlett said.
Proceeds from vehicle auctions are divided between the sheriff's office funds and the narcotics unit. In 2011, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office auctioned 58 vehicles from drug arrests, bringing in a total of $83,000 in revenue, according to the office's annual report.
Bartlett said that if Tenenbaum doesn't respond to the final forfeiture order, the sheriff's office will have to confiscate the car again. The sheriff will have to produce either the car or records of its sale during an audit, he said.
This isn't the first time questions were raised about the vehicle. On Sept. 18, a deputy requested that an internal investigation be opened into the matter, Johnson said.
At the time Johnson said he saw no need to begin an investigation.
Now in addition to launching an internal investigation, the sheriff's office plans to contact the state to see if the order can be rescinded and the settlement upheld.
Waiting for trial
Jeremy Tenenbaum hasn't been tried in the drug case, and he has been arrested again since the April incident.
After breaking up with his girlfriend, he went to Diamonds and Lace Showbar, where she works, to try to speak to her. Instead, he had a verbal altercation with another employee and reportedly fired off a couple of shots from a .380-caliber pistol before driving away in a Honda, according to an August Chattanooga Police Department arrest warrant. He also has a pending case on aggravated assault and reckless endangerment charges.
Jeremy Tenenbaum's next court date for the drug case is set for Nov. 29 before Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern.
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