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Tennessee

Tennessee

Tennessee earns a D- for its civil forfeiture laws:

Standard of Proof

Low bar to forfeit: Prosecutors must prove by preponderance of the evidence that property is connected to a crime.

Innocent Owner Burden

Limited protections for the innocent: Generally, the government must prove third-party owners knew about criminal activity connected to their property, but owners must prove their own innocence in cases involving vehicles.

Financial Incentive

Large profit incentive: Up to 100% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement.

The letter grade reflects the state’s forfeiture laws as of December 2020. When we become aware of relevant reforms, we are updating the standard of proof, innocent owner burden and financial incentive language above, but we are not updating the letter grade.

Recent Reforms

  • (2018) HB 2021: Strengthened procedural safeguards for owners by ensuring that property owners get notice of post seizure probable cause hearings (called forfeiture warrant hearings) and establishing a rebuttable presumption that claimed currency is not subject to forfeiture; created a right to attorney fees for owners whose property is ordered returned.
  • (2018) SB 1877/HB 1243: Strengthened transparency requirements.
  • (2016) HB 2176: Adopted new transparency requirements.

Recommendations

  • End civil forfeiture
  • Direct all forfeiture proceeds to a non-law enforcement fund
  • Strengthen protections for innocent third-party owners
  • Close the equitable sharing loophole
  • Strengthen transparency and accountability requirements

State and Federal Forfeiture Revenues, 2000-2019

Between 2009 and 2018, Tennessee law enforcement agencies forfeited more than $146 million in cash under state law. Between 2000 and 2019, they generated an additional $111 million from federal equitable sharing, for a total of at least $257 million in forfeiture revenue. Tennessee ranks 24th for its participation in the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program. The state does not prevent state and local agencies from using equitable sharing to circumvent state forfeiture law.

At least $257 million in state and federal forfeiture revenue
2000–2019

Year Tennessee Forfeiture Revenues Dept. of Justice Equitable Sharing Proceeds Treasury Equitable Sharing Proceeds Total
2000 Unknown $4,339,691 $476,000 $4,815,691
2001 Unknown $5,081,198 $2,220,000 $7,301,198
2002 Unknown $4,838,211 $1,309,000 $6,147,211
2003 Unknown $3,470,935 $107,000 $3,577,935
2004 Unknown $3,416,186 $154,000 $3,570,186
2005 Unknown $5,642,415 $479,000 $6,121,415
2006 Unknown $4,153,200 $2,197,000 $6,350,200
2007 Unknown $6,938,343 $55,000 $6,993,343
2008 Unknown $6,221,133 $1,303,000 $7,524,133
2009 $13,503,206 $5,205,447 $1,885,000 $20,593,653
2010 $18,306,327 $5,808,884 $440,000 $24,555,211
2011 $11,013,176 $4,902,412 $214,000 $16,129,588
2012 $13,192,881 $6,397,198 $180,000 $19,770,079
2013 $12,693,569 $4,870,108 $48,000 $17,611,677
2014 $12,465,062 $5,087,224 $532,000 $18,084,286
2015 $15,107,499 $5,023,423 $606,000 $20,736,922
2016 $17,559,291 $3,845,404 $396,000 $21,800,695
2017 $17,891,083 $2,679,554 $484,000 $21,054,637
2018 $15,130,682 $3,818,646 $1,002,000 $19,951,328
2019 Unavailable $5,067,077 $121,000 $5,188,077
Totals $146,862,776 $96,806,689 $14,208,000 $257,877,465

All revenue figures include both civil and criminal forfeitures. Revenues are not adjusted for inflation.

Tennessee's Forfeiture Transparency and Accountability Report Card

Tracking Seized Property

C

Accounting for Forfeiture Fund Spending

F

Statewide Forfeiture Reports

B

Accessibility of Forfeiture Records

A

Penalties for Failure to File a Report

F

Financial Audits of Forfeiture Accounts

A

For full transparency and accountability grades, visit www.ij.org/TransparencyReportCards.

Forfeitures Under Tennessee Law: Key Facts

Median Value

$675

From 2015 to 2018, half of Tennessee’s currency forfeitures were worth less than $675.

Property Types

UNKNOWN

Tennessee property type data were not used for this report.

Civil vs. Criminal

UNKNOWN

Tennessee does not report whether forfeitures are processed under civil or criminal forfeiture laws.

Expenditures

In 2018, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security spent $148,784 from forfeiture funds—nearly all on equipment and capital expenditures.

Data Notes and Legal Sources

Data Notes

Property-level forfeiture data were obtained from the Tennessee DSHS’s forfeiture database via public records request. Proceeds represent only cash forfeited because although DSHS tracks non-cash forfeitures, it does not track proceeds from those forfeitures. Expenditures are from DSHS’s website and represent only DSHS expenditures. All figures are in calendar years. Equitable sharing data are from DOJ’s and Treasury’s annual forfeiture reports. Due to differences in reporting and accounting practices, state figures may not match aggregate numbers produced by the state or cover the same 12-month period as the federal data.

Legal Sources

Standard of proof: Preponderance of the evidence.

Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 40-33-107(4), -210(a); State v. Sprunger, 458 S.W.3d 482, 500 (Tenn. 2015).

Innocent owner burden: Depends on the property. Generally, the government bears the burden of proof. But for vehicles, the owner must prove that she had no knowledge of the criminal use before a claim will be allowed.

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

Financial incentive: Up to 100%.

Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 40-33-110, -211(a)–(b).

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