Policy Documents

The Perils of Policing for Profit

Trey Moore & Scott Sumner –
March 18, 2013

In this policy brief, the authors ask us to consider living in a society in which you are guilty until proven innocent. The notion turns the concept of American justice on its head. Yet, this scenario plays out daily across Tennessee because of the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws; and, too often, innocent people bear the cost.

Under the state’s civil asset forfeiture statutes, law enforcement officials may seize personal property, including cash, based upon a mere suspicion that the property is related to a crime. Under current Tennessee law, no standard of probable cause is required to seize and hold private property—a hunch is all it takes.

Even worse, this practice shifts the burden of proof to property owners. Often, innocent property owners find it more economical to settle for a fraction of the seized property’s value instead of fighting the seizure in court. Because civil asset forfeiture laws allow local law enforcement to retain seizures to pay for their unit’s operating expenses— including payroll—these laws inherently create perverse incentives in law enforcement.