David Hicks (left) testifies before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Nov. 23, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn., about issues regarding oversight of state drug task forces. Hicks oversees a drug task force near Nashville. (Photo courtesy of TNReport.com)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- During a recent state Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing geared toward gaining a better understanding of Tennessee’s drug task force activities, Republican lawmakers appeared to be in agreement that reform is needed.
Chief among the specific concerns expressed by state Sens. Mike Bell, Stacey Campfield and Brian Kelsey during the Nov. 20 hearing was how the task forces generate revenue.
In particular, lawmakers said they are concerned about the practice of posting up on Tennessee interstates, pulling over motorists, and seizing cash from vehicles without making an arrest for any criminal activity.
“A clear governing structure” is needed to address the issues facing task force operations, Bell said.
He suggested one possible remedy would be to put them under the direction of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. A similar arrangement is in place in Georgia, he said.
Kelsey said it is obvious “proper oversight” is lacking.
“We’re definitely going to have to do something next year because we have some really bad actors among the drug task forces,” he said.
A joint session of the House and Senate Judiciary subcommittees will likely meet shortly after the beginning of the 2014 legislative session to consider measures to clarify the purpose, oversight and accountability of drug task forces, Bell said.
David Hicks, the director of the 23rd Judicial District Drug Task Force, which operates along Interstate 40 in Dickson County, told committee members that his budget, including the money for agents salaries and bonuses, relies solely on funds received from asset seizures – whether it be cash or through auctioning off seized property.
While task force officials generally argue that money is not taken unless there is reason to believe it is in some way connected to criminal activity, they acknowledge officers will sometimes seize cash from a vehicle if the sum is suspiciously large and none of the occupants offers a plausible and legitimate reason for possessing it.
But media investigations into what has been dubbed as “policing for profit” have uncovered instances where it appeared officers confiscated money from motorists with little or no legal justification.
An investigative series into the issue by Nashville’s News Channel 5 was discussed extensively during the Senate’s hearing last month.
Hicks said he was hesitant to discuss questions about his agency’s cash-seizing practices “out in public” due to “security problems.”
But he invited the committee members to have an “off the record” meeting at his task force headquarters in Dickson to explore the issue deeper.
One case of asset seizure that Hicks was particularly reluctant to talk about during the hearing involved the seizure of $160,000 from a New York man traveling through the state.
Hicks said it was later determined the man had “terrorist ties overseas.” Nevertheless, the man’s money was returned to him about a year later.
Committee members questioned why the money was returned if it had connections to terrorism. Hicks replied that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration “returned it to him, we didn’t.”
However, those claims have since been called into question.
Kelsey, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said a policy of tying pay to how much money an officer seizes “just doesn’t make any sense.”
“We’ve got to remove these incentives to go ahead and seize more and more money,” he said.