NASHVILLE, Tenn. – NewsChannel 5's award-winning investigative team wrapped up a two-year investigation into practices that some call "policing for profit" with a primetime documentary that aired Friday, Dec. 21, at 7 p.m. CST.
The one-hour special includes actual police "dashcam" videos of officers seizing cash from out-of-state drivers and extended interviews that have never been aired. It comes as lawmakers are debating possible reforms.
In addition to airing on NewsChannel 5, the documentary was simultaneously streamed on newschannel5.com. All eight segments can be viewed above or on the "Policing For Profit" section of NewsChannel 5's website.
"We are entitled not to be deprived of our property without due process of law, both under the Tennessee Constitution and the federal Constitution – and nobody cares," Union City attorney John Miles says in the documentary.
NewsChannel 5's investigation, led by chief investigative reporter Phil Williams, has already received some of the nation's highest journalism awards – even as the NewsChannel 5 Investigates team continued to investigate and expand upon its original reporting.
The documentary examines civil forfeiture laws that allow Tennessee police to legally take cash from individuals based on suspicion that the money might be linked to drug trafficking. If an individual does not take legal action to recover the money, the police agency gets to keep it all – sometimes to pay the salaries of the officers seizing the cash.
As a result, NewsChannel 5 discovered, agencies across Tennessee have now become focused on stopping and often searching out-of-state drivers in search of money that they can confiscate. Some jurisdictions have struck deals to allow outside agencies patrol their highways – in exchange for a cut of any money seized off of drivers. It has also led to turf wars among police agencies working the same stretch of roadway.
Law enforcement authorities defend such seizures as an essential element in the war on drugs.
"I will do everything I can to take that money out of the hands of those drug dealers and the cartel," District Attorney General Kim Helper of Franklin tells Williams in the documentary.
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates documented how the profit motive may have skewed police priorities. While drugs generally come from Mexico on the eastbound side of Interstate 40 and the drug money goes back on the westbound side, the investigation discovered police making 10 times as many stops on the so-called "money side."
In addition, NewsChannel 5 uncovered cases where couriers admitted they were carrying "drug money," but were released without charges after signing over their cash.
The documentary also introduces viewers to some of the innocent people, often immigrants or people of color, who had their money taken by overzealous police officers.
"Under civil forfeiture, you give law enforcement a direct and perverse incentive to go out and try to take as much property from citizens as possible," says Scott Bullock, senior attorney with the conservative-leaning Institute for Justice.
The Institute issued a "Policing for Profit" report card in 2010 and gave Tennessee a D- for its civil forfeiture laws.
"In civil forfeiture in Tennessee, it's an upside down legal world where you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent as a property owner," Bullock tells Williams in the documentary. "The burden is on the property owner to try to get their property back."
Tennessee's law specifically states that only the police officer's side can be heard at a hearing where a judge gives initial approval for the seizure.
As a result of NewsChannel 5's investigation, lawmakers amended Tennessee's money-laundering laws this year to clarify that couriers could be arrested for hauling drug money through the state.
Lawmakers are now considering the creation of a special legislative committee to examine whether other laws should be changed. Both the conservative-leaning Beacon Center of Tennessee and the American Civil Liberties Union are calling for repeal of the state's civil forfeiture laws or, in the alternative, major reforms.
In 2010, Phil Williams and the NewsChannel 5 Investigates team received one of broadcasting's highest honors, the duPont-Columbia University Award, for its early work on the project.
That effort was also recognized by the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Awards.