Pubdate: Tue, 21 Dec 2004
Source: Knoxville News-Sentinel (TN)
Copyright: 2004 The Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.
Author: Scott Barker
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


The Knox, Blount and Loudon county sheriff's offices routinely circumvent 
the state's process for seizing cash and property from drug crime suspects, 
lawyers defending a pair of Loudon County deputies said Monday.

The practice, a state official said, doesn't conform to state law and could 
lead to corruption.

T. Scott Jones and Craig L. Garrett said dodging the state's forfeiture law 
is standard for the three counties. Jones and Garrett said suspects could 
avoid red tape, long waits and a $350 bond by skirting the state-mandated 

Jones and Garrett said their clients, Loudon County Chief Deputy Tony 
Aikens and Deputy Paul E. Curtis, did not file paperwork with the Tennessee 
Department of Safety after seizing $9,649.25 from Soddy-Daisy resident 
Eddie W. Witt following a traffic stop in 2002.

Witt was charged with three traffic and two weapons violations. The 
deputies confiscated the cash after a police dog indicated the presence of 
drugs in the vehicle. Officers didn't find drugs, but are allowed under 
state law to confiscate property they believe to be connected to drug offenses.

Officers worked out a deal for Witt to contribute $9,649.25 to the 
sheriff's office drug fund in exchange for keeping his vehicle and the 
remaining $10,000. The Department of Safety has no record of the Witt 
seizure, spokeswoman Beth Denton said.

"That's nothing out of the ordinary," Jones said. "It's done every day." 
Ordinary or not, the practice doesn't conform to state law, a Tennessee 
Department of Safety lawyer said.

"Anything that is seized under the Tennessee Drug Control Act must go 
through the Department of Safety," said Deborah Martin, a Nashville-based 
lawyer for the department.

Martin said the practice also presents an opportunity for corruption, since 
the Department of Safety process provides a paper trail for seized property.

"There's always a possibility (of corruption) because we're dealing with 
human beings," Martin said.

In the Witt seizure, the Loudon County Sheriff's Office deposited the money 
into its drug fund, which is what would have happened with the cash if the 
proper procedure had been followed.

Though the Department of Safety oversees the hearing process, it has no 
regulatory authority over local agencies. Martin said the department 
depends on statewide annual training, audits, reports from the public and 
media accounts to make agencies follow the procedures.

The statutes governing forfeitures don't contain punishments for law 
enforcement agencies that break the law.

The laws - primarily regarding drug and certain alcohol offenses - require 
agencies to obtain forfeiture warrants from a sessions court judge within 
five days of the confiscation of property. The agencies have seven days to 
file the warrant with the Department of Safety, which then schedules hearings.

The legal actions are part of a civil process unrelated to any criminal 
charges that might arise. For example, Witt was not charged with a drug 
violation when the Loudon County deputies confiscated his money.

Agencies can negotiate settlements, state officials have said, though the 
officer who seized the property can't be involved and the Department of 
Safety has to sign off on the deal.

Jones and Garrett said they have defended many clients who've had property 
seized by law enforcement agencies and that the practice of avoiding the 
process is commonplace.

"That is routinely done," Garrett said.

Blount County Sheriff Jim Berrong confirmed his deputies negotiate 
settlements with the owners of seized property without filing the proper 
paperwork but refused to comment further.

"I'm not going to get into (an argument) with the Department of Safety," 
Berrong said. "I'm not commenting on it either way.

"We're not breaking the law," he added. "We know what the law is."

Loudon County Sheriff Tim Guider wouldn't comment on the Witt seizure or 
the Department of Safety's position on settlements. Guider said seizures 
are "supposed to go through proper channels. We're going to follow the 
law." Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison did not return a phone call seeking 
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