March 6, 2016

By Justin Owen and Hedy Weinberg, Special to Viewpoint

In 2012, George Reby, a professional insurance adjuster, had $22,000 in cash seized by Tennessee law enforcement.

The seizing officer admitted Reby "hadn't committed a criminal law." But since "he couldn't prove (the cash) was legitimate," the officer confiscated his money anyway without a hint of actual evidence.

Reby was never arrested or formally charged with any crime. After four months, he was able to retrieve his cash, but only after signing a waiver agreeing not to sue the state for seizing his money. George Reby is but one of many innocent people caught up in our state's unfair and broken civil asset forfeiture system.

Civil asset forfeiture gives law enforcement the power to steal property from someone who has not been convicted of a crime. In fact, law enforcement never even has to allege that the property is related to a crime at all; they merely have to suspect it. Indeed, in Tennessee every year, law enforcement agents seize millions of dollars from civilians during traffic stops, simply by asserting (without proof) that they believe the money is connected to some illegal activity. Oftentimes they seize the property without ever pursuing criminal charges against the property owner.

Originally intended to target drug kingpins, the current civil asset forfeiture system actually harms innocent people. While some asset forfeitures are legitimately connected to criminal activity, many others are not.

In fact, 87 percent of federal forfeiture proceedings between 1997 and 2013 were civil cases, not criminal. The median forfeiture amount in Tennessee is $502 - hardly a "kingpin" level haul. And there's no research indicating that asset forfeiture reduces crime. To the contrary, when law enforcement is chasing dollars and not bad guys, they aren't serving the public interest. This contravenes the stated purpose of asset forfeiture.

Meanwhile, the deck is unfairly stacked against the innocent property owners caught up in this broken system, who essentially bear the cost of going to court and the burden of proving their innocence.

Pursuing a hearing is difficult and oftentimes innocent property owners decide not to contest forfeitures, because the costs of taking time off from work and paying a lawyer to challenge the forfeiture would exceed the value of the property at stake.

Law enforcement has a strong incentive to use - and even abuse - civil asset forfeiture, because 100 percent of the proceeds from this practice go right back into their budgets. Currently, there is no requirement in our state to collect or report data on the use of forfeiture or its proceeds. While it is important for law enforcement to have adequate resources to protect public safety, these resources should not be obtained on the backs of innocent people.

Legislators and organizations from across the political spectrum - including the ACLU of Tennessee and the Beacon Center of Tennessee - are demanding meaningful reform of the civil asset forfeiture system. We support reforms that would require seizures be tied to an arrest or conviction, place seized assets into a general fund rather than law enforcement coffers and require mandatory reporting to identify the extent of and prevalence of seizures.

These reforms would disrupt the profit incentive and ensure that forfeiture is used as it was intended - to target criminals, not innocent civilians.

Tennesseans and tourists alike have a right to travel about our state free from the threat of their property being confiscated to fund police operations. And law enforcement should expect that we fund their departments sufficiently through the proper budgeting process, rather than encouraging them to fund their operations by seizing property.

Civil asset forfeiture reform will free law enforcement officers to make decisions based on what is best for the community rather than their budgets. And that's a win for everyone.

Justin Owen is president and chief executive officer of the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Hedy Weinberg is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

This op-ed appeared in The Memphis Commercial Appeal on March 6, 2016.