Editor’s note: This is the second story in a two-part series
By Josh Arntz
The Dickson Herald
Published Nov. 28, 2014
If you’ve ever carried cash in an old coffee can on the way to buy a used car you found on Craigslist.org, the thought probably entered the back of your mind – If the Drug Task Force decides I’m following too closely, will they claim that this roll of cash is drug-related when I get pulled over?
Everyone from Channel 5’s Phil Williams to HBO’s John Oliver has dissected purported civil forfeiture abuses by Tennessee law enforcement, apparently hell-bent on seizing cash during a traffic stop because they “believe” it’s drug-related.
‘Why would you hide a wad of cash if not for illegal purposes?’ they may ask. Because I’m traveling and don’t want to get robbed, you may respond.
The 23rd Judicial District Attorney General, Ray Crouch “guarantees” motorists no longer have to fear losing their cash or possessions to local drug agents along interstates in Dickson and neighboring counties, based on a hunch and legal jargon.
“I will sit here and guarantee you do not have to be afraid of our office, of the Drug Task Force seizing your property if you’re not committing a criminal act,” Crouch told The Herald.
Crouch and Drug Task Force Director Brian Beasley addressed local civil forfeiture practices and DTF policy changes during an interview with The Herald last week.
Crouch and Beasley reported the changes after the former was elected in August, and then appointed the latter to head the Drug Task Force.
Crouch said the Drug Task Force has topped his priority list since taking office.
“I want to make sure this organization is running squarely, legally. That we’re doing things the right way, which is one of the big transitions you’ve seen,” he added. “We have a completely new leader here, a new director and a new assistant director, who I have absolute faith in and confidence in, that they’re going to do it the right way, ethically, legally, morally across the board.”
Crouch and Beasley stated no cash has been seized by DTF agents during interstate traffic stops since they came into power.
“Not only is that a fact, but we’ve created a policy which I think goes directly to your question of the fear of the public, and our policy now is involving asset forfeiture on the interstate,” Crouch continued.
He explained that Beasley “instituted” the DTF policy changes, which the agency’s board of directors “ratified” during an Oct. 30 meeting.
“We’re not going to be using civil forfeiture to take anybody’s money,” Crouch said. “… if we do, it will be in criminal court because you will be charged with a crime.”
Tennessee’s asset forfeiture statute allows local law enforcement agencies to seize property in the form of vehicles, money, real property, etc., related to the possession of illegal or prescription narcotics. A judge may determine probable cause for the seizure and then issue a warrant, after the property already has been seized.
The statute, like any law can be “misused,” Crouch noted.
“Just like I said, there are bad cops, most of them good, laws can be used the same way,” Crouch said. “Let’s face it, you could trump up stuff to create probable cause for a search warrant. Should you? No.
“Should you be prosecuted if you do? Yeah,” he added. “The civil forfeiture law is the same thing.”
When should agents seize cash?
The forfeiture law is appropriate during a “very narrow” moment in time, Crouch continued.
Crouch used an anecdote about a contracted tractor trailer driver, hired to haul a commercial trailer with his personally owned rig, to illustrate the point.
The driver hypothetically is pulled over by DTF agents for following too closely in Dickson County, on his way from New Jersey to Memphis with the load, Crouch noted.
A drug K-9 alerts to the trailer, where the agents find a hidden compartment during a search, completely unbeknownst to the driver.
“It’s the property of someone else, but in a hidden compartment there’s a kilo of cocaine, do you think we should seize that? Absolutely… it’s an illegal narcotic,” Crouch posited. “Now do you think we should charge the driver of that truck, because I don’t.”
Investigate the driver’s claim to ignorance and the source of the drugs, he added, “but if that guy legitimately had no clue that (compartment) was there, I mean somebody else put it there, welded it into a false bed, we shouldn’t charge him with a crime.”
Crouch continued with the same anecdote but a different scenario, i.e., this time cocaine and $100,000 in cash are found. Obviously agents seize the drugs and cash, he inferred.
Crouch finished the story with a final scenario – only cash is found in the hidden compartment.
“Do you seize it… Where does the cash go? (The driver) says ‘This is not my cash,'” Crouch noted. “Do you let the money continue in its route to Memphis?”
Agents should seize the money, he acknowledged, which is the “appropriate application” of the civil forfeiture law.
The DTF policy changes for using civil forfeiture procedures on the interstate now prohibit seizures of personal property or assets, cash included, from owner-operated passenger vehicles; and mandate the DTF director or his “designee” must give approval before agents make the seizure; and the seizure must be reported to the DTF board of directors at their quarterly meeting, where the action will be “initiated.”
“We can sit here and talk for hours and hours and hours about the very specific sets of facts, but bottom line is the civil forfeiture law has a very narrow application,” Crouch said, “and I think we have to be, as administrators very careful as to how it’s used, which is why for personal vehicles, we’ve eliminated it.”
The policy changes should come as a “huge relief,” he averred.
“My thought is this, we’re not going to take your money unless we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you’re using it to commit a crime,” he said, “meaning it’s either directly related to the sales or proceeds of drug-related activity, or some other crime – if you got paid $50,000 to murder somebody, right.”
The changes are intended for more “transparency,” Crouch added.
“We’re going to be letting everybody know how and why a seizure was made,” he said. “This is the kind of stuff that really interests me, and I think people deserve to understand why we do things.”
The changes also mandate that agents should pay attention to both sides of the interstate “equally” – “The average amount of time monitored… in both directions annually should be equal.”
Crouch challenged the “stereotype” that drugs move east and cash moves west on I-40.
“My approach, let’s forget all these stereotypes that have been placed on us by other people and history,” he said, “stereotypes such as the ‘money side,’ which direction drugs are traveling.”
Targeting drug dealers
Crouch and Beasley reported they “redefined” the DTF mission to find drug dealers, not the “weekend” tokers.
“Yes that’s illegal. I’m not advocating for it,” Crouch added, “but we’re looking for drug dealers, the people who are hauling tons of dope into Tennessee every day, using our interstate system as a means of transit.”
Crouch believes drug agents are “doing the right thing for the right reasons” most of the time, evidenced by the absence of a “larger” public outcry.
Beasley concurred, saying his guys weren’t doing anything illegal or immoral, “we’ve just moved in a new direction.”
Crouch encouraged anyone who thinks their civil rights were violated or their property illegally seized to contact his office.
“My job is to make sure that we are enforcing laws properly. Make sure that people aren’t being trampled over when it comes to their civil rights,” Crouch said. “If I see that’s going on, nah we’re not going to stand for that.”