The 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states in part:
No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Yet, the State of Tennessee has given law enforcement departments the power in recent years to seize cash, vehicles, and other property of suspects – and keep it – even if the person is never convicted of a crime.
It is called “civil asset forfeiture,” and legislation making its way through the Tennessee General Assembly would impose new limits on that practice.
The bill – HB 2021 (Carter) / SB 1987 (Gardenhire) – is making rapid progress through the various committees in the Legislature. The House version was approved by the Civil Justice Committee Tuesday and was placed on the Criminal Justice Committee calendar for March 14, while the Senate version made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and was referred to the Finance, Ways, and Means Committee on Wednesday.
What this legislation will do, if passed, is place restrictions on some of the situations in which police can seize property. The main provision is making a distinction between someone who is actually charged with a crime and someone who is not.
The bill also would require proof that money was gained illegally before it can be taken. Under current law, a large sum of money found in someone's possession may be confiscated on suspicion of criminal activity. Often, an innocent party has to go to great lengths in the courts to get that money back.
Critics of the current system have called it “policing for profit.” In some jurisdictions, it probably is.
The 5th Amendment is pretty clear that a person can not be deprived of property without due process, and this legislation is a step in the right direction – restoring that constitutional right, which has been so trampled upon.