State Court Rules Civil Asset Forfeiture Unconstitutional, Tennessee Legislative Committee to Study Issue

By David Seal

South Carolina Judge Steven H. John, Chief Administrative Judge Court of General Sessions Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, ruled that civil asset forfeiture statutes in South Carolina (CAF) are unconstitutional. His 15 page opinion cites a number of federal and state constitutional deficiencies that reflect those expressed by CAF critics. His decision, the first known case decided since the U.S. Supreme Court incorporated the Eighth Amendment to the states in Timbs v. Indiana, points to lack of due process, violation of the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment, unconstitutional incentives for law enforcement to seize property from suspects, lack of judicial authorization, and most notably the burden of proof that is placed on the suspect to demonstrate that his or her property is innocent of criminal instrumentality. CAF critics also point out that property forfeitures are facilitated under criminal code in most states but do not require a criminal conviction to stand. Suspects in CAF cases are not entitled to court appointed counsel because the process is “civil in nature”. Such is the case under Tennessee forfeiture law.

Like South Carolina, Tennessee legislators continue to examine civil forfeiture law under the pressure of activists that point to a growing number of abuse cases in which property is routinely seized by government, short of a criminal indictment, let alone a conviction. They are not alone in their concerns. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued a statement in Leonard v. Texas in which he cited the widespread abuse of civil forfeiture;

This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use— has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses”.

Tennessee Legislators will hold a special hearing on Tuesday, October 29, 2019 at the Cordell Hull Building in Nashville. Members of the Civil Justice Sub-Committee of the House of Representatives will convene at 9:00 AM to study the issue.

News Channel 5 in Nashville has reported extensively on the civil asset forfeiture abuse issue, which includes interviews with Tennessee law enforcement officers and Mr. Scott Bullock, Senior Attorney with the Institute for Justice, a national law firm for liberty.

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.