Civil Asset Forfeiture, Topic of Recent Statewide Forum in Knoxville Local Activist Participating

“Civil asset forfeiture is patently unconstitutional”, one of many strong statements made by Knox County, Tennessee Mayor Glen Jacobs as he gave opening remarks to a group of legislators, business leaders, and concerned citizens who recently assembled to raise money in the fight against “civil asset forfeiture” in Tennessee. Among the groups and individuals participating were: Americans for Prosperity, Libertarian Party of Tennessee, State Representative Martin Daniel (R-18), State Representative Justin Lafferty (R-89), and members of the Campaign to End Civil Asset Forfeiture in Tennessee. Organizers included business leaders Marc Bowman and Erik Wiatr of Knoxville.

PHOTO: David Seal and Knox County Mayor Glen Jacobs

Citizens from across the political spectrum have organized in recent years to combat unconstitutional property seizures by government, all in response to widespread abuse of state and federal forfeiture laws. Tennessee is in the middle of the national pack of property forfeiture states; and legislators are hard-pressed to enact reforms aimed at protecting innocent citizens caught up in the process, mainly due to pressure applied from special interest groups that financially benefit from property and cash forfeitures. Civil forfeiture statutes permit law enforcement and other government agencies to seize private property and cash “suspected” in criminal activity. Once property is seized, the burden of proof is on the property owner to prove the innocence of his or her property in order to have it returned, turning constitutional “due process” on its head. Herein lies the problem. Legal precedent, grounded in the Constitution, prescribes the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”. Under civil forfeiture, property is deemed guilty-by-suspicion until proven innocent. Adding injury to the indigent, forfeiture is “civil in nature” under Tennessee law, meaning that people whose property is seized have no right to court appointed counsel and other procedural protections in order to avoid property forfeiture.

The swelling list of constitutional problems and cases of forfeiture abuse is endless. In Tennessee, property can be permanently seized, and then forfeited, without a criminal conviction, or even a criminal charge being made.

A number of reform bills are pending across the country in state assemblies, including Tennessee. One such reform bill, sponsored by Representative Martin Daniel, has 40 co-sponsors. Additionally, courts are beginning to take notice of the widespread abuse of the forfeiture industry, none more compelling than the 2019 decision by the United States Supreme Court in Timbs v Indiana, which examined forfeiture and excessive fines, incorporating the 8th Amendment to the states. Closer to home in another 2019 case, a South Carolina Court deemed civil forfeiture as outright unconstitutional. To address constitutional concerns and fairness, the Beacon Center of Tennessee advocates for “criminal asset forfeiture” as a replacement for “civil asset forfeiture”, a process that requires a much higher standard of evidence, criminal procedure, and a criminal conviction to permanently seize and forfeit property that is used in criminal activity.

Local property rights activist David Seal was in attendance as a participant and financial program sponsor.