By Jill Penley
The town of Mountain City is set to add a new police cruiser to its fleet of seven, and taxpayers are not footing the bill.
Where did the money come from? The short answer is drugs. Civil asset forfeiture, originally created to hamper large-scale criminal enterprises, allows law enforcement to seize assets, including vehicles, cash, and drugs from people arrested during law offenses.
“Any vehicle that is seized due to drugs and awarded to the town through the courts,” explained Sheila Shaw, City Recorder, “when it is sold, the proceeds go into the drug fund.”
Cash seized related to drug charges also goes into the fund.
Proponents of the state’s civil asset forfeiture law consider it a vital tool to support anti-drug efforts as forfeitures mean law enforcement agencies at the state and local level can legally take drug dealers’ assets and money and use it to enforce the law.
In large metropolitan areas, however, police departments depend on such seizures to balance their budgets since many of the proceeds from seizures revert back to those departments.
From 2009 to 2014, Tennessee law enforcement collected nearly $86 million in forfeiture, not including the value of all the cars and electronics they seized.
Mountain City Mayor Kevin Parsons understands the ambiguity of this type of action. “Under the current civil forfeiture laws, police can seize and sell your car or other property and use the proceeds without having charged you with a crime,” explained Parsons. “While this might be construed by some as ‘policing for profit,’ I would never submit a budget with anticipated income from sales of seized property.”
Often, an individual can get the property back through court challenges, but these cases can often be very expensive and take months or years to resolve. “It is important to note Under TCA 55-50-504(h), a person driving on a canceled, suspended, or revoked license because of a DUI can have the vehicle they are driving be subject to seizure and forfeiture,” Parsons said. “If you are driving on a revoked or suspended license for a DUI, even if the DUI was in another state, the city will take and sell the vehicle you were driving regardless of who owns the vehicle.”
According to Parsons, this was the case for one of the vehicles sold by the city last month. While the charges were ultimately dropped against the person who owned the vehicle, under the state’s civil forfeiture law, the seizure was legal, and the vehicle owner was unable to take repossession of the car, which was eventually sold.
“While the overall purpose for asset forfeiture is good,” said Parsons, “it needs to be investigated because as wrong as this was for the city to keep and sell the vehicle, we would have broken the law if we gave it back.”
There have been several bills introduced in the Tennessee legislature in an effort to reform asset forfeiture laws to prohibit the state from taking property without a criminal conviction, but as it stands any law enforcement agency may seize property including vehicles, money, and real estate for possession of narcotics, illegal or prescription.
Vehicles may be seized for driving on a driver’s license which has been revoked for driving under the influence (DUI) and for driving under the influence (DUI) for a second or subsequent time.
The city recorder confirms the Town of Mountain City recently sold a seized vehicle on govdeals.com, and the proceeds from that sale were $10,300.