Law enforcement rejects effort to revise state forfeiture law

State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville

NASHVILLE -- Alarmed that Tennessee lawmakers may move to curb police agencies' ability to self-fund through seizures of cash and vehicles without actual criminal convictions, law enforcement sought to paint the loss of money in the starkest of terms on Monday.

"If you do want to make a difference for our communities, take away criminal-proceeds forfeiture funding," said a sarcastic Steve Jones, who is assistant prosecutor with the West Tennessee Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. "You'll make a huge difference. It just won't be a positive difference.

"The criminals will thank you," he added.

That didn't sit well with Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who in the past has seen big problems with the Cleveland-based 10th Judicial District Drug Task Force.

"It's almost like you were trying to set up that you're either for us or you're for the criminals," Bell shot back.

The task force for Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties in Bell's district once had a director who spent tens of thousands of dollars that could not be identified as legitimate task force spending. That included flowers, scented candles and local hotel rooms for himself and a female agent.

Later, a former Cleveland detective charged in court that his efforts to determine whether the then-task force head had a drug problem led to his unfair firing. Earlier this month, former detective Duff Brumley won a Tennessee Appellate Court victory when judges said his appeal of the firing shouldn't have been dismissed by a Hamilton County judge and needs to be reheard.

And a 2010 state Comptroller audit led to the indictment of a West Tennessee drug task force director and his assistant on theft charges.

Bell said during Monday's hearing the current law "subjects some of our citizens to forfeiture when they did absolutely nothing wrong."

But Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, who is president of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, told lawmakers those cases are a rare exception.

"It seems that many in our country are jumping on knee-jerk reactionary bandwagons that are the result of isolated incidents that may get misrepresented," Rausch said.

Removing this ability to "impact crime in our state because of a few bad apples would be a travesty," he said. "It would make Tennessee a haven for criminal gangs and a hub for criminal enterprise."

The increased self-funding aspect of law enforcement has resulted at the national level in the oddball pairing of conservative and libertarian billionaire Charles Koch and the American Civil Liberties Union who are questioning the seizing of property when law enforcement can't make a criminal case.

Lee McGrath with the libertarian Institute for Justice told lawmakers he draws a distinction between roadway seizures and forfeitures. While law enforcement says the civil process of forfeiture has protections, McGrath said it should be part of a criminal proceeding following conviction.

"Let's not let this tail wag the dog," McGrath said.

Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Tracy Trott said that in the last 20 months, 97.5 percent of the department's seizures involved cases that included arrests. But in the agency's biggest seizure ever - a 2011 stop where troopers found $4.1 million in sealed cases of water in a tractor-trailer - the driver denied knowing anything about the money. He wasn't arrested, Trott noted. And law enforcement officials say that's often the case on roadway seizures.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, wanted to know why money from those seizures doesn't revert to a local government's general fund just as money does when the Tennessee Attorney General's office wins a multimillion settlement with, say, a pharmaceutical manufacturer dinged for illegal practices.

Shelby County prosecutor Jones rejected that, scoffing that it would subject police agencies, which are a part of government, to what he called "governmental red tape."

Kelsey wasn't impressed.

"You would call it that," the chairman told Jones. "But we would call it the legislative process."

Contact Andy Sher at, 615-255-0550 or via twitter at AndySher1.