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'Policing For Profit' Reforms Defeated In Tennessee

Posted at 7:15 PM, Apr 11, 2016
and last updated 2023-07-13 05:49:21-04

(This story was originally published April 11, 2016.)

This was the year that some civil liberty advocates had hoped would bring an end to "policing for profit" in Tennessee.

But with lawmakers heading for adjournment, most of those reform measures have once again gone down in defeat.

In the end, the law enforcement lobby proved to be too strong, with police dismissing concerns about innocent victims, telling lawmakers that the proposed reforms were a solution to a problem that's now been fixed.

Those practices were first exposed by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Our investigation first revealed how some Tennessee police had targeted out-of-state drivers -- often people of color -- looking for cash they could seize based on the suspicion that it might be drug money. That money was then used by those police agenices to fund their operations.

One bill -- patterned after a law passed in New Mexico -- would have outlawed civil forfeiture altogether.

Instead, police would have been allowed to seize cash and other property only after the person was convicted of a crime.

That bill failed to get a single vote in a House subcommittee.

"Legislators tend to be very pro-law enforcement," said Justin Owen, who heads the conservative-leaning Beacon Center of Tennessee, which had joined with the ACLU in pushing for the reforms.

"Unfortunately, lawmakers felt that it wasn't a pervasive problem, that the Department of Safety can only show that 67 people got their property back that was wrongfully taken -- therefore, it wasn't a huge problem."

And law enforcement was back in force on another day for a bill that would have required them to pay the attorneys fees for anyone who hires a lawyer and gets a judge to order that their property should be returned.

State Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, pressed the witnesses.

"What do we do with an elderly lady who cashes out her $28,000 bank account, gets stopped, her money is seized, and she has to spend $14,000 on attorneys to get her life savings back?" Carter asked.

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson argued the revelations have already led to reforms that have changed the way those more controversial agencies operate.

"It may be a problem that does not exist today that we are attempting to correct," Anderson said.

Still, police argued, that piece of legislation could also hurt cops.

"They can't have it both ways," Owen said. "They are either abusing the process and they are going to get dinged for it -- or they're not."

Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons insisted that civil forfeiture is an important source of funding for law enforcement.

"We are not asking the taxpayer of this state to pay for our drug interdiction efforts," he testified.

In the end, all reformers could get this year is legislation that requires the state to track such seizures -- and report back on how much is taken and how much is eventually returned.

"We hope to build upon this," Owen said. "We are not going away. We will continue to work with groups like the ACLU to press for protections for Tennesseans when their rights have been violated."

The good news, Owen added, is that the new lawy will give the public information about the scope of the problem, which may come in handy if the issue comes up again next year.

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