TN highwayman program targeted by reform bill invites local corruption

Seized cars and trucks are part of Tennessee’s highwayman program, also known as civil asset forfeiture. (Photo Tennessee Watchdog)

Seized cars and trucks are part of Tennessee’s highwayman program, also known as civil asset forfeiture. (Photo Tennessee Watchdog)

This week a committee in the general assembly is considering the civil asset forfeiture reform bill proposed by Sen. Todd Gardenhire and a state representative.

The bill would reduce the incentive of police departments and sheriff’s deputies and their combined drug task forces from their profitable highwayman program.

In 2016, the Tennessee highwayman combine seized property in 7,616 cases which includes F$17 million dollars in cash and 3,636 cars and trucks. In the period of 2009 to 2014, highwaymen stole F$85.9 million dollars and also reaped for local governments F$26 million through the U.S. Department of Justice. According to attorney John Whithead, the U.S. justice department in 2013 absorbed F$2.01 billion. The state and local take from civil asset forfeiture since 2008 is at F$3 billion.

As Tennessee Watchdog reports, the lucrative trade in stolen goods gives occasion for misfeasance and corruption in local police and sheriff’s departments.

By Chris Butler / Tennessee Watchdog

(Jan. 27, 2017) Gibson’s former police chief seized vehicles without a warrant and only returned them in exchange for a donation to the town’s drug fund, a state audit released Thursday says.

Police kept vehicles so long they ran up storage fees of $13,000, Tennessee Comptrollers say.

Auditors say they had reason to believe former police chief Taylor Atkins was working just 20 hours a week, about half the amount of time required. Town officials terminated Atkins in December 2015, said current Police Chief Brad Hardin. Hardin did not say why Atkins was terminated.

Taylor Adkins

Taylor Adkins

Atkins’ home phone number was disconnected Thursday. He did not immediately return a request for comment sent to his personal Facebook page.

Atkins’ LinkedIn page lists him as chief of public safety from November 2007 until his December 2015 termination date. In that position he held authority over the town’s police and fire departments.

According to the audit, Atkins failed to obtain forfeiture warrants and failed to file the proper seizure forms with the state’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security. He didn’t negotiate or enter settlement agreements to return vehicles to their owners.

“In at least two instances, the former police chief demanded vehicle owners make donations to the town drug fund as a condition of having their vehicles returned, even though the vehicles had not been properly or lawfully seized in accordance with state statutes,” the audit said.

The audit blasted town officials for allowing Atkins to slip in his duties.

“Although his signed timecards that indicated he was working 40 or more hours per week, several town officials stated that they observed he was actually working closer to half the number of hours he was reporting for the town.”

In this time, the audit says, Atkins was a full-time high school teacher and assistant football coach.

In their response to the audit, Gibson officials said they “have corrected these deficiencies.”

This isn’t the first time in recent years auditors have called out Tennessee law-enforcement agencies for reportedly abusing search-and-seizure powers.

➤  As reported last fall, auditors called out sheriff’s deputies in Humphreys County for rarely keeping an inventory of the items they seized for at least 10 years.

➤  In 2011 the Wartburg Police Department seized a BMW sedan after arresting the owner on narcotics charges, and, according to an audit, the police captain’s wife used the car.

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