The notion that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty is one of the bedrock principles of American law. But it applies only in the sphere of criminal law, not civil law. The sad fact is that Tennessee law allows property to be taken from a criminal defendant or an innocent third-party, even if that person has not been convicted of a crime. It's called civil asset forfeiture.
Unfair? Unjust? Un-American? Yes, and it gets worse. Consider the fact that civil forfeiture laws allow a portion of the assets to go to the law enforcement agency that seized them. Critics say that the practice incentivizes law enforcement agencies to take assets even when the evidence linking those assets to a crime is less than solid.
A number of states have reformed their civil forfeiture laws and there are reform movements in other states including Tennessee. But civil forfeiture laws are still on the books in our state. And in July 2017, the federal Department of Justice announced its intention to reinstate its policy of sharing seized assets with local law enforcement agencies.
How does civil forfeiture work?
Tennessee allows law enforcement authorities to take property that was used in a crime or that constitutes the proceeds of a crime. This practice is most often employed in cases involving drug trafficking, but property related to crimes such as prostitution, human trafficking, fraud, and other offenses can be seized. People who are caught driving on a suspended license after a DUI or who get arrested for a subsequent DUI can also have their vehicles impounded and eventually forfeited. A person who has had property seized can file a petition in civil court seeking a hearing to contest the action.
Tennessee asset seizure laws
Tennessee sets a low bar for civil forfeiture. No conviction is required for a forfeiture action to prevail. The level of proof required is only a "preponderance of the evidence". By contrast, the standard of proof in a criminal case is "beyond a reasonable doubt". Tennessee law also provides only limited protections for innocent third-parties whose property is used in a crime. For example, if the property in question is a vehicle, it's up to the owner to show that he or she had no knowledge of the criminal use of the vehicle.
There have been numerous examples and complaints about the unfairness of Tennessee forfeiture laws. If you have had property seized, speak with an experienced forfeiture defense attorney. Some criminal defense attorneys do not handle civil forfeiture matters, but many do. If your criminal defense attorney does not handle such cases, he or she can undoubtedly refer you to one who does.