Tennessee Drug Interdiction Officers Stomp All Over Traveling Couples' Rights En Route To Seizing Nothing At All
from the putting-the-'ass'-back-in-'asset-forfeiture' dept
A couple (Lisa and Ronnie Hankins) traveling through Tennessee on their way home (to California) from a funeral was stopped by Tennessee drug interdiction agents as they traveled west on I-40 out of Nashville. What followed was a long fishing expedition, during which officers separated husband and wife in hopes of getting permission to search their vehicle without a warrant.
“You say there’s not anything illegal in it. Do you mind if I search it today to make sure?” the officer asked.
Lisa responded, “I’d have to talk to my husband.”
The agent continued, “I am asking you for permission to search your vehicle today — and you are well within your rights to say no and you can say yes. It’s totally up to you as to whether you want to show cooperation or not.”
“You have to either give me a yes or no,” he continued. “I do need an answer so I can figure out whether I need a dog to go around it or not.”
Because the agent was unable to obtain consent from the couple, he decided to ask a dog. A drug-sniffing dog was brought in to examine the vehicle and, go figure, it alerted near the driver’s side window (after ignoring the open passenger’s side window). Finally having obtained “permission” for a warrantless search, the two agents went to work. An hour later — and having disassembled the dashboard of the couple’s new car — they were unable to recover anything incriminating. But hey, no one’s rights were violated because the drug dog told officers the car contained drugs, even though it didn’t.
It also didn’t contain any cash, which one agent told the Ronnie Hankins was far more likely to be hidden somewhere in the vehicle.
[W]hen Ronnie insisted there were no drugs, the agent confided he wasn’t really expecting any.
“Well, I’ll be honest with you, with you going this direction, I wouldn’t think you’d have drugs in the car — you would have a large amount of money,” he said.
Apparently, drug interdiction agents are far less interested in stopping the flow of drugs than they are in intercepting outgoing cash. Otherwise, as Nashville’s News 5 (which has been investigating the state’s out-of-control asset forfeiture program for years) points out, it wouldn’t be performing a majority of its stops on roads leading out of the state.
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.”
The frustrated officers finally let the Hankins go, but not before making a last-ditch effort to redeem their futile efforts. The police report claims the interdiction agents found “marijuana debris” or “shake” on the floorboards of the vehicle. The Hankins claim the only thing on the floorboards was grass from the cemetery where Ronnie Hankins’ grandfather was buried. Whether it was “grass” or grass, neither of the Hankins were charged or cited.
Tennessee’s asset forfeiture laws are far worse than those in many states. 100% of the proceeds of any seizures go to the department that performed it. Legislative attempts to overhaul these laws have been mostly fruitless. A bill introduced in early 2013 aimed to eliminate this abuse by making seizures contingent on convictions. By the time the House and Senate had amended the bill, the only net gain was the prohibition of ex parte hearings. If Tennesee interdiction officers seize your money or other property, they now (the law went into effect at the beginning of this year) have to give you a date when you can show up and defend “forfeited” property from the accusations of law enforcement — something of limited utility considering these officers tend to prey on drivers with out-of-state plates. Depending on what has been seized, it may be cheaper to allow the state to claim its ill-gotten goods rather than spending even more money to participate in a largely ceremonial process that often results in the state paying out only pennies on the dollar.