On Sept. 18, 2017, Lewis Cain, a disabled Vietnam veteran living in Nashville, Tennessee, woke to a flashlight shining in his eyes.
It was officers from the Mount Juliet Police Department, who had arrived at Cain’s home with an arrest warrant for his son. Cain himself had not been accused of any crime, and the police had no warrant to enter his house or remove property from his home.
Yet the officers later asked for the keys to Cain’s car. Confused but wishing to cooperate, he handed them over. When he objected, police told him that they were allowed to take his car.
Then they opened his garage door and drove away in his 2009 BMW.
The police allege that Cain’s son used Cain’s car to drive to a few locations where drug deals took place. However, this does not give them the right to take the car — Lewis Cain himself is an innocent property owner with no connection to any alleged criminal activity, and the police knew that the car belonged to Cain and not his son. Police clearly violated Cain’s constitutional rights when they took his car without a warrant or a hearing.
“I took an oath to defend our Constitution when I served in the military,” he says. “I have the highest respect for law enforcement, but the Fourth Amendment has to mean something. Police officers can’t just take people’s property for no reason.”
The seizure was part of a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement agencies to seize an individual’s cash and property simply by asserting that they believe the property is connected to illegal activity. Oftentimes officers seize property without ever pursuing criminal charges against the property owner.
Law enforcement has a strong incentive to use — and even abuse — civil asset forfeiture because the proceeds from this practice go right back into their budgets. In Tennessee, the practice nets law enforcement agencies millions of dollars every year.
Unfortunately, Mr. Cain’s case is another example of the way Tennessee’s overly broad asset forfeiture laws invite, and even incentivize, abuse by law enforcement. While it is important for law enforcement to have adequate resources to protect public safety, these resources should not be obtained by picking innocent people’s pockets or taking their property.
Originally intended to target drug kingpins, the current civil asset forfeiture system actually harms legitimate property owners. While some asset forfeitures are validly connected to criminal activity, many others are not.
In fact, 87 percent of federal forfeiture proceedings between 1997 and 2013 were civil cases, not criminal. The median forfeiture amount in Tennessee is $502 — hardly a “kingpin” level haul. And there’s no research indicating that asset forfeiture reduces crime. To the contrary, when law enforcement is focused on profit rather than public safety, they aren’t serving the public interest. This defies the stated purpose of asset forfeiture.
Meanwhile, the deck is unfairly stacked against the innocent property owners caught up in this broken system, who essentially bear the cost of going to court and the burden of proving their innocence.
In January, the ACLU of Tennessee filed a petition with the Department of Safety, arguing that the seizure without a warrant violated Cain’s Fourth Amendment rights and that the officers had purposefully misrepresented Cain's son as the owner of the car in police reports, despite evidence that the son was not the owner. The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security agreed to voluntarily dismiss the case and return the vehicle to Cain.
But we also want to make sure that the Mount Juliet police know that they can’t do this again. This week we filed a federal lawsuit on Cain’s behalf. The lawsuit asserts that the actions of the police violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects innocent property owners like Cain from unreasonable searches and seizures. Cain’s due process rights were also violated, as he was not given notice of a fair hearing prior to the seizure of his vehicle.
Outside the courtroom, we have also been working for five years with organizations from across the political spectrum — including the Beacon Center of Tennessee and Right on Crime — to demand reform of Tennessee’s civil asset forfeiture system.
Recently some incremental legislative progress has been made in our state. More data on the practice is now being collected and reported. And as of October 2018, property owners must be given reasonable notice of forfeiture warrant hearings and the burden will be on the seizing officer to prove that the property is subject to seizure — instead of property owners having to prove that their property is not associated with a crime.
But we still have a long way to go. Ultimately, we would like to see seizures tied to actual convictions and placement of seized assets into a general fund rather than law enforcement coffers. These reforms would disrupt the profit incentive and ensure that forfeiture is used as it was intended — to target criminal activity, not innocent civilians like Lewis Cain.