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State lawmakers hear arguments for keeping civil forfeiture law

It often comes as a shock for people to learn that law enforcement officials at both the state and federal level can not only seize their private property -- cash, vehicles, etc. -- but that they can do so in the absence of criminal charges or a conviction.

The ability to seize property in this seemingly unfettered manner derives from what are known as civil forfeiture laws, which have long been used by law enforcement in connection with suspected drug crimes, white collar crimes or other gang-related criminal activity.

Not surprisingly, civil forfeiture laws have long been the target of intense condemnation, with critics arguing that they are overused, violative of personal property rights and often abused.  

What is surprising, however, is that not only has this condemnation of civil forfeiture laws grown louder over the last few years, but that the parties leading this charge are on different ends of the political spectrum from the American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative-minded billionaire Charles Koch.

In fact, the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing earlier this week to hear testimony from law enforcement officials as to why the state should resist efforts to either scale back or eliminate the state's civil forfeiture law.

These officials, including the president of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, indicated that the civil forfeiture law not only serves to disrupt and destabilize criminal activity, but that the proceeds derived from the cash seized or the assets sold at auction are indispensable in crime-fighting efforts. They also downplayed concerns over the potential abuse of civil forfeiture law.

For their part, lawmakers didn't appear as if they were persuaded by the testimony, meaning the reform or repeal of the state's civil forfeiture law could very well be on the table this session.

Indeed, it's possible that they could model any changes to the law after those recently introduced in New Mexico, where law enforcement officials are now required to wait for a conviction until disposing of seized property.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

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