NASHVILLE, Tenn. – NewsChannel 5 has uncovered a brand new “policing for profit” case — a case that resulted in a New York man losing a $160,000 on a Tennessee interstate.
Even more startling, critics said, the case exposes a major loophole around a new law that’s supposed to crack down on such abuses.
Police video, obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, shows how an Indian-American businessman from New York lost the cash during a December 2011 traffic stop along I-40 in Dickson County.
It’s money that authorities would eventually be forced to return — more than a year later.
“It does show that the government did not have a very strong case,” said Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the conservative-leaning Institute for Justice.
Her organization has called such practices “highway robbery.”
The cash was seized by an interdiction officer from the 23rd Judicial District Drug Task Force. The agency gets its funding by seizing cash — usually from out-of-state drivers, often minorities — when officers have suspicions that it might be drug money.
But in this case, instead of using state seizure laws, the agent from the 23rd took the cash to the feds, tying up the businessman’s money in the federal courts.
“It’s a very formal and, I think, burdensome process,” said Peter Strianse, a former federal prosecutor.
Federal agencies have 90 days to file a forfeiture action after money is taken, the property owner has 30 days to file a claim, then the U.S. Attorney’s Office has another 90 days to file a formal lawsuit. That then begins a whole series of back-and-forth court filings.
Strianse said that he often hears from people who’ve had $10,000 or more seized through federal forfeiture laws — and he has to tell them to kiss their money goodbye.
“It becomes just a real losing proposition,” he said. “You are going to spend three times that amount of money to try to get the $10,000 back that was taken from you.”
“So why bother?” NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
“You are right a lot of people just don’t bother,” he answered.
In this case, the New York businessman who was in the passenger seat did not want to admit how much cash he was carrying — although his driver did tell the officer that they were headed to Memphis to try to buy a convenience store.
“Looking for some work, business here,” the driver said.
“What kind of business do you have?” the agent asked.
“You do groceries?”
“Convenience stores, yes.”
Those statements never showed up in the officer’s report.
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