Momentum Builds for Civil Forfeiture Reform in Tennessee – Activists Meet at Annual Bill of Rights Dinner

Photo L/R – Tori Venable – State Director, Americans for Prosperity -Tennessee, Erik Wiatr – Citizens to End Civil Asset Forfeiture, David Seal – CAF Reform Activist

In front of a group of more than one hundred activists at the annual Bill of Rights Dinner in Knoxville, organizer Erik Wiatr described Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF) as one of the greatest threats to individual property rights. Master of Ceremonies Mayor Glen Jacobs of Knox County recalled a meeting in which he found it difficult to convince his staff that something as unconstitutional and unfair as civil forfeiture even existed [in America]. They were given the assignment to “Google Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuse”. “Scary” was the word used around the water cooler the next day.

Civil Asset Forfeiture is a process by which property and cash can be seized from its owner merely because the property itself is suspected of being involved in criminal activity. In Tennessee, after a seizure occurs, a forfeiture warrant hearing is required. If probable cause is established at that hearing under the lowest possible standard of evidence, the fate of the property is then decided by the Department of Safety. Outside a court of law, private property can then be permanently forfeited and liquidated administratively.

Does civil forfeiture work as intended?

Research demonstrates that civil forfeiture does not reduce crime. In fact, forfeiture, a growing multi-billion-dollar industry, is used as a revenue scheme according to the Institute for Justice. In Tennessee alone, just under $19 million of cash was seized in 2017 with the average seizure valued under $1000, an amount far below the level intended to punish major drug traffickers.

The practice started in the early nineteen-seventies as part of the failed federal war on drugs but was quickly adopted by state governments. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware is credited with being the “father of modern civil forfeiture”, according to Mises Institute research. Over the past few decades, many of the original due process protections have been stripped away from the practice of forfeiture, including the requirement of a criminal indictment or conviction. This has led to widespread abuse of forfeiture laws at both the state and federal level.

Constitutional Questions

The property owner has no right to appointed legal counsel in hearings because the process is “civil in nature”, generally conducted by an administrative judge, not by a criminal court. With the cost of hiring an attorney often exceeding the value of the seized property, the deck is stacked against the property owner. Under civil forfeiture, the property owner in many cases has the burden of proving that his or her property was not the instrument of a crime, turning traditional constitutional due process upside down.

Activism to Change Policy

Keynote speaker Jeffery Deist of the Mises Institute addressed the Campaign to End Civil Asset Forfeiture with a range of topics, decentralized government, deficit spending, constitutional education, and the role of the people in shaping their own government. He concluded his presentation with the statement “don’t let them take your morale”. The Bill of Rights Dinner to benefit the Campaign to End Civil Asset Forfeiture was sponsored by State Representative Justin Lafferty (R-Knoxville), Americans for Prosperity – Tennessee, Law Office of Daniel A. Herrera PLLC, and Clayton Wood.

Many critics of civil forfeiture advocate for “criminal asset forfeiture” as a constitutional replacement for “civil forfeiture”. Criminal forfeiture affords law enforcement the tools to combat crime while preserving individual rights and restoring the precept of “innocent until proven guilty”.

Several proposed bills are currently under review to reform civil forfeiture in Tennessee.

Source: Submitted by David Seal - David is a retired Jefferson County educator, 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, property rights, education, and broadband accessibility on the state level.