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Civil Forfeiture Often Focuses on Profit Instead of Public Safety

When Lewis Cain was roused from sleep by police officers in his home demanding the keys to his BMW, he objected. Still, cops drove away in his car.

“I have the highest respect for law enforcement, but the Fourth Amendment has to mean something,” said the disabled Vietnam veteran. “Police officers can’t just take people’s property for no reason.”

But to the amazement of many people, they can. Police seized Lewis’ car under Tennessee’s civil asset forfeiture laws, under which cops can take a person’s property if they believe it is connected to illegal activity—often without even pressing criminal charges. Police said Lewis’ son was driving around in the car making drug deals. It was Lewis’ burden to prove the police were wrong.

The ACLU of Tennessee filed a petition on behalf of Lewis with the Department of Safety, and the State agreed to return his car.

To make sure this did not happen to someone else, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit claiming police violated Lewis’ constitutional rights.

When law enforcement is focused on profit rather than public safety, they are not serving the public. Instead, the profit incentive drives police to abuse the civil asset forfeiture system, which puts millions of dollars in their budgets. In October 2018, Tennessee changed its forfeiture law slightly to require reasonable notice of forfeiture hearings to owners and shifted the burden on police to prove seizure is needed.

The ACLU continues to push for reform to stop forfeiture money from going to local police agencies and thereby end the profit incentive that currently drives aggressive civil forfeiture actions. 


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