Lawmakers Set To Debate 'Policing For Profit' Reforms
Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville
by Phil Williams Chief Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee lawmakers are prepared to consider a major overhaul of laws that allow police to take cash off of drivers to fund their agencies.
One lawmaker said this may be the year for some serious reforms.
It all stems from NewsChannel 5's two-year "Policing For Profit" investigation.
Rep. Barrett Rich's bill, as drafted, would completely outlaw the practice known as civil asset forfeiture. That practice allows police to take people's cash or property without charging them with a crime.
While Rich didn't believe he had the votes to go that far, he said that there is an emerging consensus over other reforms to protect the innocent.
"Since I've put the bill in, I've had member after member after member wish to cosponsor the bill," he told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
Rich comes to the issue from the experience of having served as a Tennessee state trooper. The West Tennessee Republican himself did some interstate interdiction.
That's the kind of enforcement activity that -- for some agencies -- has become more about making money than stopping drugs.
"When we went back and we watched NewsChannel 5 and we saw some of the issues that people have faced with civil forfeiture, the one thing that we see is that they are not actually given the opportunity to be heard by a real judge immediately," Rich said.
A prime example, Rich said, is the New Jersey man who had $22,000 cash taken from him during a traffic stop. An officer took George Reby's money based on his suspicion that it might be drug money. Related story:Man Loses $22,000 In New 'Policing For Profit' Case
"I told them that I had active bids on eBay, that I was trying to buy a vehicle. They just didn't want to hear it," Reby said.
The Monterey police officer had a judge to sign off on the seizure in a secret hearing, but he never told the judge about Reby's side of the story.
"You did not include that in your report," NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted.
"If it's not in there, I didn't put it in there," Officer Larry Bates answered.
"So why would you leave that out?"
"I don't know."
Reby did not know there was what is called an "ex parte" hearing -- meaning only the officer's side can be heard.
"It wouldn't have mattered because the judge would have said, 'This says it shall be ex parte, sit down and shut up, I'm not to hear from you -- by statute,'" said Union City attorney John Miles.
Rep. Rich said that story "opened a lot of people's eyes" and has created a chance for reform.
"If we arrest a criminal, they are given an opportunity to have a preliminary hearing," the lawmaker said.
"I think that when the government does a taking of property, they should be given that opportunity immediately to be given at least hearing in front of an elected judge, a real judge."
Rich added that he wants to make sure that police are still allowed to take real drug money off the streets, while protecting the rights of the innocent.
"I really believe that the members of this General Assembly care about this issue greatly and want to protect the rights of all people that come to Tennessee, and I believe that we are going to see some real substantive due process measure taken this General Assembly. I really do."
If his proposal passed, it would be the second law to come from NewsChannel 5's"Policing For Profit" legislation.
Last year, the legislature amended the state's money laundering law to make it clear that couriers can be arrested for carrying drug money through Tennessee.
Prior to that, some agencies were just taking their money and letting the couriers go.
Rich said the "Policing For Profit" documentary, which aired back in December, really helped to crystallize what he believes are some common-sense reforms that lawmakers have discussed.