Commentary: End asset forfeiture in Tennessee

January 27, 2021 4:00 am
(Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

(Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

You are more likely to have your property taken from you by sworn law enforcement officers than burglars. In fact, in the past 10 years, police in Tennessee have taken $146.9 million in property and cash from citizens not even accused of a crime via civil asset forfeiture. These assets are typically used to bolster police budgets for equipment and vehicle upgrades. 

The intended purpose of asset forfeiture was to allow police to seize items used in crimes to offset the cost of crime-fighting. It was extended over time to allow police to grab property and cash they had reason to suspect were used or would be used to commit a crime. The burden of proof falls on the individual losing their property to prove that they did not commit a crime or even intend to commit a crime. 

Civil asset forfeiture is now abused to such a large degree that even carrying a few hundred dollars with you can be construed as sufficient evidence for “intent” to commit a crime. With your property or cash considered guilty until proven innocent, it is notoriously difficult and expensive for citizens to retrieve it. Just think, it is nearly impossible to prove that you weren’t going to buy drugs with the $500 in your glove box, even when you have good, documented reasons for carrying the cash. 

According to a recent study from the Institute for Justice, Tennessee gets a D- for “appalling civil forfeiture laws” at the state level. It is so bad, we have received national attention in The Washington Post and even been ridiculed by late-night comedians

The average civil forfeiture taken in Tennessee is $675, so it is not being used to reel in big criminals. Rather, it is being used to legitimize wide scale theft from citizens. In 84 percent of the cases, the value of the seized cash or property is small enough that citizens are better off letting the police get away with it rather than paying the expense of hiring an attorney. 

Tennessee gets a D- for “appalling civil forfeiture laws” at the state level. It is so bad, we have received national attention in The Washington Post and even been ridiculed by late-night comedians

Asset forfeiture was set up with such generous revenue sharing that most of the seized property now supplements police budgets. Many departments have become dependent on this revenue stream. Law enforcement agencies unable to acquire equipment they need should make the case for additional resources, rather than stealing it from those they have sworn to protect. Civil asset forfeiture is a particularly troubling source of revenue for police departments given that its primary victims are the poor

Civil asset forfeiture also creates a whole host of perverse incentives, including encouraging police to focus on busting criminals after drugs have already been sold to final users. Heroine obviously can’t be liquidated into cash, so police have a strong incentive to raid a drug house after it has been sold on the streets in order to seize the money. For instance, in Tennessee, police officers focus almost all of their attention on stopping drug dealers returning from the Northeast flush with cash on westbound I-40, rather than stopping eastbound drug deliveries. 

Police, who obviously benefit from the continuation of the program, argue that curbing civil forfeiture laws will increase crime. There is no evidence to support this claim. A recent study by the Institute for Justice finds that asset forfeiture does not reduce crime or drug use. States such as New Mexico that have reformed their laws have not experienced a surge in crime or drug use. If anything, ending civil asset forfeiture will improve the effectiveness of police as it will realign their incentives towards stopping crime rather than engaging in it. It would also improve police-citizen interactions. 

Police are commissioned to protect us from theft. With civil asset forfeiture, we have given good cops the incentive to take property and cash from innocent citizens on the weakest of suspicions. Eliminating civil asset forfeiture here in Tennessee would end this regressive and unethical practice and help restore citizens’ trust in our law enforcement officers. 


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Daniel Smith
Daniel Smith

Dr. Daniel J. Smith is the Director of the Political Economy Research Institute at MTSU and an Associate Professor of Economics in the Jones College of Business. He is also the Senior Fellow for Fiscal and Regulatory Policy at the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter: @smithdanj1