Patches of Fog
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Another "policing for profit" case again has Tennessee lawmakers talking about possible reforms.
In that case, police discovered they were wrong about accusing an East Tennessee woman of being involved in drug trafficking, but the state tried to keep her cash anyway.
New numbers from the Tennessee Department of Safety show law enforcement officers across the state opened 9,420 seizure cases in 2016.
But in almost 4,000 of those cases, there were no reported arrests.
The total currency seized statewide: more than $17 million.
For years, our NewsChannel 5 investigation has focused on forfeiture laws that give police the incentive to take cash off of drivers based on the suspicion that it might be drug money.
If the property owners don't take legal action to get the money back, the agencies get to keep it all.
Sevier County resident Kathy Stiltner saw it firsthand back in 2014 when a Sevierville police officer stopped her for DUI.
Inside her car, he found almost $12,000 cash, along with a baggie of pills.
"I told him," Stiltner recalled, "I said that's not drugs. That's just a stomach medication."
The officer charged her with selling illegal drugs and seized the cash.
But the lab results proved it was just antacids -- and evidence showed she had just cashed a big inheritance check from her mother.
Her attorney was Bryan Delius.
"We go to the officer, go to the district attorney attorney, we present the inheritance check that she received," Delius recounted.
"They were apologetic and said this is ending right here, these felony charges are being dismissed and we are going to return your money to you."
The judge signed an order to do just that.
But, months later, the Tennessee Department of Safety demanded that she bring the money back, saying she could not prove the cash was really hers.
"Why is it not right?" the attorney asked rhetorically. "Well, who is the world goes to the bank and cashes their paycheck or receives money and writes down the serial number on the cash money?"
Department of Safety lawyers even tried to get Delius's confidential attorney files.
At a recent legislative hearing -- where advocates called for an end to policing for profit, while police argued it's a useful tool in the war on drugs -- a Department of Safety official defended the agency's actions in Stiltner's case, saying state law doesn't give local judges the authority to return seized assets.
"This was a turf war," Delius said. "This was them wanting to show that this is their playground and you come play at our invitation."
It was a case that raised the eyebrows of the committee -- which attorney Delius says is exactly what should happen.
"In this country, we have always valued property rights. You know, it's something that's sacred and inviolate. This is my property. I've worked hard for it. And it's not something that should be easily taken from me."
Eventually, the Department of Safety dropped its battle for Stiltner's cash.
But her attorney said, had he not agreed to represent her for free, she would not have been able to fight a system that sometimes forces the innocent to simply give up.
That's the accusation from a former employee of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
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