Tennessee Vehicle Forfeiture Procedure Questioned by Hamilton County Sheriff

Tennessee Vehicle Forfeiture Procedure Questioned by Hamilton County Sheriff

Hamilton County sheriff Jim Hammond has asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to decide whether he violated state procedure when he returned a car to its owner after it was seized during a drug-related arrest of the owner’s son. The investigation is meant to clarify the state’s vehicle forfeiture procedures so that law enforcement agencies are clear in the future of exactly what to do in such circumstances.

The owner of the car, Marcia Tenenbaum, told reporters that she called Hamilton County Sheriff in April after her son was arrested for possession of marijuana in her Lincoln sedan. Tenenbaum knew Hammond from her past. Both studied criminal justice at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Tenenbaum is merely an acquaintance of the Sheriff's and he says the the decision was not meant as a personal favor.

Tenenbaum said that she called the sheriff to say that she was disabled and needed the car to get around. Hammond apparently agreed and returned the car. However, some people question whether the return was proper. One official says that sheriffs are not permitted to release a car without a direct order from the state Department of Safety. No such order was ever issued by the agency and the car should have remained state property under that interpretation. Others in law enforcement and many attorneys say that the sheriff is well within his authority to return the vehicle. He has the discretion they say to return vehicles that his officers seized under his authority.

Hammond says he was concerned about the decision and wanted it to be reviewed to settle the matter. To him the issue is purely procedural and not one about improper influence. Some paperwork may have been improperly filed which could have led to the release of the vehicle. The sheriff’s office launched an internal investigation into the matter in an attempt to sort out the issue.

Police officers across the state often seize automobiles when they find drivers in the possession of drugs. Tennessee law allows law enforcement agencies to confiscate an automobile that is used in to transport illegal drugs, regardless of whether the person transporting the drugs actually owns the car. The person found in possession of drugs is issued a notice of seizure and is informed that they must submit a petition to the Tennessee Department of Safety if they wish to contest the seizure.

There is an exception to a seizure under Tennessee law for those that simply possess such drugs for their own personal use.

Whether a Sheriff can return a vehicle for good cause once it has been seized under his authority without approval of the Department of Safety is the underlying issue.

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Read: “Sheriff asks TBI to probe seized car procedure,” by The Associated Press, published at SFGate.com.
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