Hearing on Civil Asset Forfeiture Takes a Strange Turn

Cumberland-plateau-i40-tn1.jpgCivil asset forfeiture is a highly controversial procedure that allows law enforcement to seize cash and other assets suspected of association with illegal drugs and other criminal activity. The state can then file a civil claim seeking a court judgment divesting the owner of any claim to the assets. Because these proceedings are civil rather than criminal, the state’s burden of proof to show a connection between the assets and criminal activity is much lower. The Tennessee Legislature held hearings in November 2013 on the practice, which led to an unusual and unexpected comment from the head of a Nashville drug task force.

Nashville station Newschannel 5 reported extensively on alleged abuses in “policing for profit.” This coverage reportedly inspired the legislature’s hearings. As legislators were questioning the director of the 23rd Judicial District Drug Task Force about the failure to connect $160,000 in cash, which had been seized from a New York businessman during a traffic stop, to any sort of illegal drug activity, the director reportedly claimed that it “had terrorist ties overseas.” He did not offer any additional information on the basis of that claim.

When a senator asked why the money was returned to its owner despite alleged terrorist ties, the director said the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) returned the money, not his task force. Newschannel 5’s investigation, however, revealed that the U.S. Attorney’s Office returned the money as part of a settlement of the civil case, filed as In re $160,000 U.S. Currency, No. 3:12-mc-00032 (M.D. Tenn.)

The 23rd Judicial District Drug Task Force obtains funding through civil forfeiture of cash, according to Newschannel 5. Much of the cash it seizes comes from out-of-state and minority drivers. The task force director acknowledged during his testimony that members of the task force worry about losing their jobs if they do not seize enough money to continue funding their operations.

Tennessee law has some restrictions on civil asset forfeiture, but in the $160,000 case, the task force reportedly complicated matters by turning the money over to the DEA. The case began with a traffic stop on Interstate 40 in December 2011. An Indian-American businessman traveling from New York was the passenger in the vehicle. The officer convinced the driver and the passenger to consent to a search of the vehicle, and found the cash in a bag in the back seat. The passenger said they were traveling to Memphis to negotiate the purchase of a convenience store, but the officer took possession of the money.

Video of the stop apparently shows the officer admitting to another officer that there is probably no connection to drugs, but that it is still a “currency violation.” Carrying cash is not inherently a crime, so “currency violations” do not actually exist. The rightful owner of the cash spent a year compiling documentation to prove that the money was his. The government finally released $155,000 to him in December 2012, keeping $5,000 as a settlement. Federal rules split the seized money with the local task force 80/20, netting it $4,000.

A person facing charges for an alleged criminal offense should retain the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney, who can help them understand their rights and work to protect their Constitutional and procedural rights through all phases of the process. Criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has represented defendants in west Texas defendants for more than two decades. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.

More Blog Posts:

Constitutional Challenges to Civil Forfeiture Meet with Only Limited Success, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, August 2, 2013
State and Federal Governments Use Civil Forfeiture to Seize Assets Outside of the Criminal Court System, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 26, 2013
DA’s Use of Private Contractor in Highway Drug Seizures and Forfeitures Causes Controversy, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 26, 2013
Photo credit: By Brian Stansberry (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.