Civil Asset Forfeiture: New Research Indicates Limited Value, Federal and State Reform Legislation Pending

A media release and comprehensive report made by the Institute for Justice (IJ) demonstrates the limited value of civil asset forfeiture in curtailing crime. Tennessee ranks among the top states for the use of civil forfeiture, the practice of seizing private property and cash under criminal code without the requirement of a conviction or filing of criminal charges. The IJ report demonstrates that property and cash forfeitures are being used to increase revenue in financially strapped communities, a practice called “policing for profit”. State and federal legislators are becoming increasingly concerned with the apparent abuse and constitutionality of civil asset forfeiture.

In light of the constitutional concerns of due process raised by opponents of the practice, a bill has been filed in Congress by U.S. Representative Tim Walberg (R-MI-07) titled the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act (FAIR) under HR 1895. The bill aims to remove the profit motive from federal law enforcement agencies for civil forfeitures, increase the standard of evidence for which property forfeitures can occur, eliminate proportional sharing that is often used by local law enforcement to circumvent state enacted protections, increase reporting requirements of forfeitures, and provide for a prompt hearing to determine if the seized property was actually used as an instrument of criminal activity by its owner.

Tennessee has its own version of forfeiture reform under way, filed by State Representative Martin Daniel (R-18-Knoxville) and co-sponsored by 38 other Tennessee legislators. Tennessee House Bill 340 aims to accomplish many of the same protections as the federal legislation, and to limit proportional sharing for seized property valued under $50,000. A summer study legislative committee will likely consider the bill in September.

Submitted by David Seal David is a long time educator in Jefferson County, as well as a recognized artist and local businessman. He has also served Jefferson County as a County Commissioner and is a lobbyist for the people on issues such as eminent domain and broadband accessibility on the state level.