Tennessee General Assembly Tackles Civil Forfeiture…Again

Civil asset forfeiture is once again under consideration by the Tennessee General Assembly. Forfeiture of assets became a means of confiscating property used in the commission of a crime in the early 1980’s when federal authorities set out to interrupt illicit drug cartels operating in the United States. The practice has strayed widely from its original design. States, following the federal model, quickly made laws of their own to cash in on property seizures. Beyond that, forfeiture has become a multi-billion dollar industry that has caught the attention of property rights activists who cite hundreds of abuse cases nationwide, Tennessee included.

To better protect innocent property owners from capricious and random seizures, most states have enacted limits on cash and property forfeitures. Three states have eliminated forfeiture all together, and fifteen have enacted laws to require a criminal conviction to invoke a forfeiture. In the wake of widespread abuse by government in seizing property and levying excessive fines, more states are following suit with reforms, especially South Carolina; and cases are being filed in state and federal courts to challenge the constitutionality of forfeiture.

Tennessee made modest reforms during the last legislative session. However, in Tennessee, property and cash can still be seized under the mere suspicion that certain property may have been used in the commission of a crime, no criminal conviction needed. Suspects can be stripped of their property and cash with little due process under a relatively low standard of evidence, and without the aid of a court appointed attorney. In fact, Tennessee has one of the worst records of civil forfeiture abuse in the nation, see IJ report below.

Representative Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville) and Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) have filed bills to improve protection of private property in forfeiture proceedings by increasing the standard of proof required, eliminating federal proportional sharing of seizures of $100,000 or less, and to require attorney general review of probable cause prior to the forfeiture warrant hearing. The bills are grounded in HB 340 and SB 362. HB 340 will get its first hearing by the House Civil Justice Sub-Committee on Tuesday, February 19 at 4:30 PM CST.

A link to the proposed Tennessee legislation can be found at:


Institute for Justice Report on Tennessee Civil Forfeiture Abuse

Nick Sibilla article on proposed reforms in South Carolina, Forbes, February 14, 2019


Source: David Seal