Tennessee Bill Would Abolish Civil Forfeiture

A new bill would eliminate civil forfeiture in Tennessee. Unlike criminal forfeiture, under civil forfeiture police do not need to convict or even charge a property owner before seizing his property. Civil forfeiture turns “innocent until proven guilty” on its head by forcing owners to prove their innocence to recover the seized property.

In good news for property owners across the Volunteer State, State Rep. Barrett Rich, a former Tennessee state trooper, has introduced HB 1078. If the bill passes, seizing property would require a warrant. In addition, forfeiture and title transfer of property would take place only under due process of law and if “the owner of the property in question is prosecuted and convicted.” The bill has one other cosponsor, Rep. Joey Hensley, and is currently in committee.

Speaking to a local news station, Rich outlined how civil forfeiture treats innocent owners worse than actual criminals:

“If we arrest a criminal, they are given an opportunity to have a preliminary hearing. I think that when the government does a taking of property, [property owners] should be given that opportunity immediately to be given at least hearing in front of an elected judge, a real judge.”

Tennessee’s rampant abuse of civil forfeiture earned the state a D from the Institute for Justice. Local agencies get to keep 100 percent of all property forfeited—a tempting incentive for cops to go crooked. As Tennessee’s News Channel 5 has detailed, there have been far too many cases of policing for profit.

Last year, George Reby, a professional insurance adjuster, had $22,000 in cash seized because a Tennessee officer merely suspected Reby was a drug courier. Reby was never arrested or formally charged with any crime. Even the officer admitted Reby “hadn’t committed a criminal law,” but since “he couldn’t prove [the cash] was legitimate,” Reby’s money was confiscated. Fortunately, after four months, Reby was able to retrieve his cash, but only after signing a waiver not to sue the state.

So far, only Washington, D.C. is considering meaningful civil forfeiture reform. Back in January, IJ won a major federal lawsuit on behalf of the Caswell family, who were facing the loss of their motel even though they were not suspected of any wrongdoing. Let’s hope Tennessee can blaze a trail for ending civil forfeiture and respecting property rights.

Hat tip to Americans for Forfeiture Reform.

— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice

Sign up to receive IJ's biweekly digital magazine, Liberty & Law along with breaking updates about our fight to protect the rights of all Americans.