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Holiday Travel: What Are Your Rights in a Traffic Stop?

The ACLU of Tennessee is asking citizens to report their incidences of having property seized during a traffic stop and what their experience was as they tried to retrieve it. Credit: dodgertonskillhause/morguefile.com
The ACLU of Tennessee is asking citizens to report their incidences of having property seized during a traffic stop and what their experience was as they tried to retrieve it. Credit: dodgertonskillhause/morguefile.com
December 7, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - From 2009 to 2014, Tennessee law enforcement seized almost $86 million in cash and an untold amount of personal property.

As it stands, law enforcement doesn't automatically return the property in a traffic stop, even if the owner of the vehicle is proved innocent. State law places the burden on the individual to prove innocence in a hearing that takes time and money and can be difficult to navigate.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director with the ACLU of Tennessee, explains.

"They don't understand the process because it's quite burdensome, or they live in another part of the state, or another state, and they don't have the resources to travel back," she says.

The Institute for Justice recently gave the state a D-minus for its civil forfeiture laws. Supporters of civil forfeiture say it is a powerful tool to thwart criminal organizations and the seized property is used to fight illegal activity.

This month the ACLU of Tennessee is launching an online survey to further evaluate the problem in Tennessee. The organization is pushing the state to strengthen the burden of proof required to forfeit property and remove the burden from property owners to prove their innocence.

Last year, New Mexico ended civil forfeiture in that state. North Carolina only allows civil forfeitures if the property owner has been convicted of a crime. Other states have diverted where funds go, placing them in a general fund, and Weinberg says that at least would be a start to addressing the problem.

"There needs to be a disincentive for law enforcement so that they don't seize the cash, seize the property, and then enjoy the benefits of that, because that's what happens now," says Weinberg.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against "unreasonable searches and seizures," but allows for searches and seizures with "probable cause."

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - TN