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Forfeiture Funds Fancy Food for Officials

by Edward B. Lyon

Federal laws allow state and local police agencies to seize private property and keep it whether or not its rightful owner is charged with or convicted of a crime. States participating in the equitable sharing forfeiture program keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds. Equitable sharing from 2008 to 2014 was nearly $2.5 billion. "No indictment[s)" were filed in 81 percent of these forfeitures.

State's fund sharing agencies must "avoid any appearance of extravagance, waste or impropriety," responsibly using forfieted funds. "Social events" are a specified example of unallowable expenditures. Food and drink may be purchased for "local operations like hurricane relief" and presumably active police operations.

A 2017 United States Justice Department audit found Tennessee's Department of Safety & Homeland Security (DSHS) spent $112,614 on "catering and banquet tickets" with equitable sharing funds. DHSH's controller claimed to "not know these expenditures were unallowable," despite program guidelines online, and he pledged to reimburse the federal government.

Early in 2017, Tennessee state Representative Martin Daniel introduced legislation to abolish civil forfeitures and sharply limit equitable sharing by Tennessee police agencies. Heavy lobbying by law enforcement managed to kill the bill.


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