Tennessee due process protection advances

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 4/9/2013

Tennessee lawmakers are moving forward with a push to do away with an unfair practice to truckers and others traveling through the state.

The House Criminal Justice Committee voted in favor of a bill that is intended to rein in “civil asset forfeiture.” The practice allows police to take cash, or property, from people pulled over along roadsides without charging them with a crime.

Supporters say changes are needed to the rule to stop law enforcement agencies from seizing money, vehicles and other property based on mere suspicion that the property is related to criminal activity. They point out that in some instances thousands of dollars worth of property or cash are seized, yet the property owner is never charged with a crime.

Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, said his bill would help ensure that innocent drivers get their due process. HB1078 would allow people whose money or property has been confiscated by police to get an immediate hearing before a judge, instead of having to wait months.

Specifically, the bill would forbid “ex parte” hearings. The practice prevents individuals from getting a hearing before a judge to determine whether law enforcement had probable cause to take their property.

Instead, individuals would be able to go before a judge and tell their side of the story, as well as present evidence to support their claim. The judge would listen to both sides and make a decision. If the judge rules in favor of the individual, the property must be returned immediately.

Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said it imperative for the state to do away with ex parte hearings.

“It’s a huge deal that you actually get to stand in front of a judge and say (the officer) is wrong,” Shipley told lawmakers. “That’s a huge move in the right direction.”

Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, said the bill would protect all travelers on Tennessee highways.

“This takes a process that was done in the dark and brings it into the light of day. This makes sure that both sides of any forfeiture have due process,” Lamberth said.

HB1078 awaits further consideration in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Tennessee, click here.

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