Tennessee Legislators Can't Stand Up To Cops; Keep Federal Loophole Open For Nashville Law Enforcement
from the asset-forfeiture-gone-mad dept
Earlier this year, the Tennessee legislature passed some very minimal asset forfeiture reforms. The bill, signed into law in May, does nothing more than require periodic reporting on use of forfeiture funds and the occasional audit.
What it doesn’t do is require convictions. It also doesn’t close the federal loophole, which allows Tennessee law enforcement to bypass state laws if they feel they’re too restrictive. Given that state law doesn’t really do anything to curb forfeiture abuse, the federal adoption lifeline isn’t used quite as often in Tennessee as it is by law enforcement agencies in others states with laws that are actually worth a damn.
Nashville on Tuesday renewed its participation in a controversial 1980s-era federal program that’s allowed the police department to keep proceeds from seized assets taken from people suspected of crimes involving drugs.
After spirited debate, the Metro Council voted 25-5 with two abstentions to renew Metro’s participation in the “equitable sharing program” with the U.S. Department of Justice and federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
The loophole Nashville law enforcement barely needs will remain open. And it will remain open because… well, budgets are tight and we can’t keep asking state taxpayers to make up the difference.
Councilwoman Jacobia Dowell, who also voted for renewing the agreement, said not renewing the program would leave a hole in the city’s budget.
“I have zero confidence in this council body to find $150,000,” Dowell said, noting the city’s budget struggles this past year.
So, instead of all taxpayers, Councilwoman Dowell wants to have just a few taxpayers pitch in to help cops — taxpayers who happen to have property law enforcement thinks they didn’t acquire legally.
Or not even taxpayers! Why even trouble those who reside in the state to give law enforcement some extra cash. Why not just take money from people leaving the state? That’s the way Tennessee’s “drug interdiction” teams work. According to law enforcement, they want to stop the flow of drugs into the state. That doesn’t really explain their actions:
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.”
Law enforcement doesn’t seem to mind the drugs coming in, but it’s certainly not going to let the cash head back out. Councilwoman Dowell thinks if cops can’t lift money from drug dealers, they won’t be able to buy the stuff they need to continue to allow drugs to flow into the state.
What Dowell absolutely doesn’t want to see is her poorest constituents asked to dig even deeper to keep the drug interdiction units in business.
She said [the budget shortfall] would end up coming from Nashville’s “most distressed and the impoverished communities.”
Bless her heart. Oh wait.
Although civil asset forfeiture affects people of every economic status and race, a growing array of studies indicates that low-income individuals and communities of color are hit hardest. The seizing of cash, vehicles, and homes from low-income individuals and people of color not only calls law enforcement practices into question, but also exacerbates the economic struggles that already plague those communities.
None of the rationale makes sense. The drug teams that don’t actually catch drugs need money to keep doing the job they’re not doing and they need to take it from someone since the state’s not going to help them out. The people who are going to help them out are either people leaving the state or low-income residents.
The problem is that when you say someone’s going to have to come up with $150,000, someone will have to come up with it. And when that number increases — and it will — the shortfall comes directly from residents and other US citizens who have their belongings taken from them without even being accused of a crime.
$150,000 is only the cut from federal sharing. That’s Nashville law enforcement’s manageable money habit. There’s more to it than the federal slush fund. Nashville law enforcement has created a drug enforcement ecosystem that can’t be sustained without the seizure of millions of dollars every year. Even prosecutors recognize the problem.
[Nashville County District Attorney Glenn] Funk stated that on his first day as Nashville’s District Attorney, he was told that $1.7 million to $2 million would be needed to be brought in through seizures in order to keep the drug task force in operation. He also expressed concern that individuals were indicted or subject to forfeiture proceedings who would not otherwise have been if civil asset forfeiture were not a “cash cow.” He stated that officers sometimes target people with high-value cars so they can forfeit them and put the cars into service. General Funk provided these as examples of problems that arise “when we don’t have legislative oversight over the funds and assets . . . that are being seized.”
If you want to start fixing forfeiture abuse, start with the federal loophole. Agencies will realize it’s not impossible to live without this money. And from there, you can start cutting them off from the main supply by eliminating civil asset forfeiture altogether by adding a conviction requirement. But if you can’t even make this small move, you’re not serious about fixing the problem. That’s Nashville’s problem — one that harms citizens while keeping law enforcement flush with funds they really didn’t earn.