Policing for Profit

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.

State Law Sources

Standard of proofPreponderance 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 burdenGovernment, 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 incentiveUp to 100 percent.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-33-211(a)–(b).
Reporting requirementsNone.

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

State Forfeiture Data

YearReported Currency Forfeiture Proceeds
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.

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.

(calendar years)
(fiscal years)
Average Per Year$4,928,687$798,643