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Tennessee earns a D- for its civil forfeiture laws:

  • Low bar to forfeit and no conviction required
  • Limited protections for innocent third-party property owners
  • As much as 100% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement

State Forfeiture Laws

Tennessee has appalling civil forfeiture laws, earning a D-. Law enforcement only needs to tie property to a crime by a preponderance of the evidence in order to forfeit it. In cases where property has been used in illegal activity without the owner’s knowledge, the government generally bears the burden of disproving an innocent owner claim. However, if the property in question is a vehicle, an innocent owner bears the burden of demonstrating that she had no knowledge of the criminal use of her car. Law enforcement agencies in the Volunteer State also retain up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeiture.

Although Tennessee has no statutory forfeiture reporting requirement, the state’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security maintains records of the value of calendar-year forfeitures. However, this practice provides little transparency as interested parties must file a request under the Tennessee Open Records Act in order to access the records. Data shared with the Institute for Justice indicate that Tennessee law enforcement agencies forfeited nearly $86 million in cash between 2009 and 2014; this figure does not include the value of any physical property forfeited, such as cars or electronics, suggesting that the total value of forfeitures in Tennessee over the period was much higher.

Show State Law Sources
Standard of proof

Preponderance of the evidence.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-33-210(a); Stuart v. Dep’t of Safety, 963 S.W.2d 28, 33 (Tenn. 1998).

Innocent owner burden

Government, except in cases of vehicles, when the claimant must prove that she had no knowledge of the criminal use before a claim will be allowed.

Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 40-33-108(a), 40-33-210(a)(2), (c)–(f).

Profit incentive

Up to 100 percent.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-33-211(a)–(b).

Reporting requirements

None.

State Forfeiture Data

Year Reported Currency Forfeiture Proceeds
2009 $14,244,407
2010 $18,861,974
2011 $11,639,516
2012 $15,127,022
2013 $13,126,402
2014 $12,973,137
Total $85,972,458
Average per year $14,328,743

Source: Value of calendar-year cash forfeitures obtained from the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security via a Tennessee Open Records Act request made by a state citizen working for the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Figures do not include the value of any physical property that was forfeited.

Tennessee ranks 26th for federal forfeiture, with over $69 million in Department of Justice equitable sharing proceeds from 2000 to 2013.

Federal Equitable Sharing

Tennessee law enforcement agencies’ participation in the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program earns the state 26th place in the national rankings. Agencies received more than $69 million in DOJ equitable sharing proceeds between 2000 and 2013, averaging almost $5 million per calendar year. The overwhelming majority of both assets seized and proceeds received—95 and 92 percent, respectively—stemmed from joint task forces and investigations, the type of equitable sharing largely untouched by former Attorney General Holder’s policy change. Finally, Tennessee law enforcement agencies received more than $11 million in equitable sharing proceeds from the Treasury Department between 2000 and 2013—a fiscal-year average of nearly $800,000.

View Local Law Enforcement Data
YearDOJ
(calendar years)
Treasury
(fiscal years)
2000 $5,076,408 $476,000
2001 $3,991,668 $2,220,000
2002 $4,295,220 $1,309,000
2003 $3,354,244 $107,000
2004 $3,382,851 $268,000
2005 $5,427,348 $479,000
2006 $5,605,520 $2,197,000
2007 $6,009,737 $55,000
2008 $5,107,079 $1,303,000
2009 $4,473,733 $1,885,000
2010 $5,767,881 $440,000
2011 $6,693,475 $214,000
2012 $4,644,197 $180,000
2013 $5,172,256 $48,000
Total $69,001,617 $11,181,000
Average Per Year $4,928,687 $798,643

DOJ Equitable Sharing,
Adoptive vs. Joint, 2000-2013

Adoptions
Joint Task Forces and Investigations
Seizures
Proceeds

DOJ Equitable Sharing Proceeds, 2000-2013

Sources: Institute for Justice analysis of DOJ forfeiture data obtained by FOIA; Treasury Forfeiture Fund Accountability Reports. Data include civil and criminal forfeitures. Because DOJ figures represent calendar years and Treasury figures cover fiscal years, they cannot be added.

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