In the State of Tennessee, civil asset forfeiture laws allow police officers at traffic stops to confiscate a person’s money, car or property before they charge someone with a crime or prove a crime was committed.
The funds they earn are used by the local departments to fund their police work, buying departments luxury SUV’s and gear with little spending oversight. It is a policing style coined by critics as “Policing for Profit,” and government watchdogs and concerned citizens in Tennessee are fighting for change.
“We have always been taught as Americans that you’re innocent until proven guilty,” Cunninham said. “Policing for Profit turns it on its back, where you’re guilty until proven innocent.”
Vencie Varnado said he fell victim to the system in April, when Millington police seized his Mercedes after his son was arrested for marijuana possession.
What followed was a six month battle between Varnado and a law loosely regulated by the State's Department of Safety.
“His job was to take my property away from me,” Varnado said, describing an employee at the Tennessee Department of Safety the day he went to get his car back from the state.
“I asked him if he had any interest in an innocent owner,” Varnado added. “He said, ‘No. I work for the state. My job is to take your property from you.'"
The retired war veteran admits his adult son was wrong. “My son put rocks in his bed, so to speak,” Varnado said. But his son does not own the car, and Varnado said he was not aware of his son’s drug use.
Varnado maintains he is the innocent owner of the car. He provided the title to FOX13, proving he is the sole owner of the vehicle. When he took his proof to authorities, Varnado said they treated him like the criminal, asking him to pay more than $3,000 to buy his car back from the police department.
“I explained to him I had no intention of paying money to have my property, and I was an innocent owner,” Varnado told FOX13. “He said, ‘Well, I’ll see you in court.'"
He and his attorney, Megan House, said Millington police should have immediately returned the car to Varandao when he proved that the car did not belong to the individual who was arrested – in this case, his son. But they argue the law protects police in Tennessee more than it protects people.
“It’s very easy and the standards are very low to seize property,” House said. “But it is very difficult, and the standards and deadlines are very strict to get it back.”
The Beacon Center’s work on civil asset forfeiture helped pass a law in the Tennessee requiring law enforcement agencies keep a record of warrants for property they take from citizens in the state starting in 2015. The restriction was a small step for an organization that’s motivated to keep pushing lawmakers for stricter regulations.
Cunningham said they eventually want to make it illegal for police to take property before they prove a crime was committed.
“This is a horrible thing and we want to get rid of this process altogether,” Cunningham said. “In order to take someone’s property you should have to prove they did something. They shouldn’t have to prove they didn’t do something.”
Law enforcement agencies have fought for years to prevent restrictions on police to seize property. They argue civil asset forfeiture is a crime-fighting tool that takes drugs, and property bought with drug money, off the streets.
In return, the funds they earn by seizing cash and selling seized property funds their continued crime-fighting efforts.
“Even if it funds the police department, it’s not the right way to do so,” Cunningham said. “Anybody who considers themselves to be a constitutional conservative has to say this is against the constitution.”
Critics like Cunningham and House argue the law gives too much discretion to police officers.
According to Tennessee State law, the money and property police take can’t be sued to pay police officers, or “supplement the salaries of any public employee.” But it does directly benefit departments’ law enforcement efforts with little accountability.
The law dictates that money police earn by seizing cash and selling cars should be used for “reasonable and direct expenses related to seizing property."
Opponents argue that is a conflict of interest that motivates police to take property from innocent owners.
“The standard is very low already for the officer to be able to seize a vehicle when he makes a drug arrest,” House said. “He just has to have probable cause that the vehicle was used to transport drugs.”
“In Mr. Varnado's case, it was more egregious,” she added. “I don't think that any sort of due diligence was done to find the owner.”
With House’s help and a few hundred dollars, Varnado got his car back more than six months after the Millington Police Department took it. The police department did not respond to FOX13’s request for an interview.
Varnado said he wants to be compensated for the money he had to spend on legal representation and court costs to get his car back, and he wants the laws to change.
“This is America,” the war veteran said. “We don’t take property from innocent people and give it to the government to use as they see fit.”
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