A Tennessee state legislator has introduced a bill to abolish civil asset forfeiture, the controversial legal power that allows police to confiscate and keep property without ever charging the owner with a crime. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Barrett Rich (R-Somerville), would require a criminal conviction of the owner to permit law enforcement to keep any property associated with the crime.
According to the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice, every state in the country has some version of a civil asset forfeiture law. Under Rich's bill, Tennessee would be the first to abolish it.
Asset forfeiture generally is a centuries-old legal doctrine that allows the government to seize property used in the commission of a crime. Starting in the late 1970s, the U.S. government began to expand the principle to include not only property used to commit a crime, but any "ill-gotten gains" from criminal activities like drug dealing or racketeering. By the mid-1980s, the concept had further expanded to allow the government to seize property in a civil proceeding without bringing criminal charges against the owner. In 1986, Congress created a program that permitted the law enforcement agencies that conducted the seizures to receive the proceeds from them. Most states then passed similar laws.