FOX13 Investigates: Local police seizing drugs, money under microscope of TN legislators

FOX13 Investigates: Local police seizing drugs, money under microscope of TN legislators

Memphis, TN — Local law enforcement officers assigned to take drugs, money and property from suspected criminals are under the microscope of Tennessee state lawmakers.

Last year, the West Tennessee Drug Task Force took about $1.1 million in cash and property from suspected criminals on local highways, according to the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office.

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Nearly $17 million was seized by police across the state of Tennessee through the process of civil asset forfeiture.

State lawmakers want control of that money.

"Right now there is zero accountability on how this money is being spent," State Senator Brian Kelsey, a Republican lawmaker from Germantown, said.

Chief Tim Helldorfer, Director of the West Tennessee Drug Task Force, said the money isn't the state's money to spend.

"The drug dealers pay for our operations," Helldorfer said. "The politicians, the Tennessee government do not."

Officers take money during traffic stops on major highways. Task forces were formed years ago to get illegal drugs and criminals off the streets.

Police can take money from people at traffic stops, if they have probable cause the money was used for an illegal transaction such as drug sales. A judge then signs a warrant, agreeing to the forfeiture.

Kelsey said the money needs to be allocated by the state after it's taken, to make sure it's used responsibly.

"I have no problem taking money from bad guys," Kelsey said. "But when that money is seized there's got to be accountability and transparency in how its spent."

Helldorfer told FOX13 his organization won't be able to do their work anymore if lawmakers get their hands on the money.

"The state won't fund us," Helldorfer told FOX13. " We will cease to exist in a year, or a year in a half. It's not just the drug task force  every law enforcement agency benefits from this."

The money officers take is used to pay for police operations, and some of it is shared with local agencies who dedicate officers to the task force.

They want money to go to the general fund where they control it," Helldorfer said. "They don’t think we have enough accountability, and that’s just not true."

The debate between law enforcement and lawmakers who support legislation that challenges the task forces has come up during multiple legislative sessions in recent years.

The practice of police seizing property from people without convicting someone of a crime has also been a point debate across the nation, including here in Shelby County.

There are a number of bills that could significantly change how the task forces and local police departments operate; but Kelsey said he wouldn't support legislation that eliminates task forces altogether.

"I am all for the full funding of our law enforcement officers," Kelsey said. "But that funding has got to come through a legislative body. That’s why we have gov’t set up with separation of powers."

You can view proposed legislation regarding asset forfeiture on the Tennessee State Legislature's website.