A Tennessee police officer was indicted by a grand jury on charges of theft after he pocketed $6,000 from property owners who had their cars taken through civil asset forfeiture.
An investigation from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s office released last week found that Sgt. Michael Hurt, a 15-year veteran of the Morristown, Tenn., Police Department, kept more than $6,000 in cash he received from property owners whose vehicles were seized by the law enforcement agency.
According to the audit, Hurt was responsible for returning the cars seized by the Morristown Police Department under civil asset forfeiture laws. Often times, the owners were required to pay the law enforcement agency a cash settlement or reimburse the agency for towing and storage fees, which Hurt collected.
However, in 2014 and 2015, Hurt kept more than $6,000 he collected from property owners, instead of depositing the money for the police department.
“I find it particularly troublesome when an officer of the law chooses to engage in dishonest activity,” Justin Wilson, the comptroller, wrote in the report. “It is important that police departments and other government entities understand the risks associated with handling cash in day-to-day operations.”
The comptroller’s office could not answer any more questions beyond what was provided in the report. The Daily Signal requested from the Morristown Police Department information regarding the number of property owners involved and the agency’s use of civil asset forfeiture. However, the department did not respond by the time of publication.
The Morristown Police Department told Tennessee Watchdog the property owners had their cars seized after they were arrested. However, it’s not known if the cars were connected to the activity. Those found not guilty entered into a court-imposed settlement and had their vehicles returned. They did not have to pay the towing and storage fees.
The comptroller’s investigation, done with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, found that Hurt “renegotiated” at least one settlement ordered by the Department of Safety from $5,000 to $1,500. The officer also tried to hide his actions by not recording having received the majority of the money and altering police department records.
Though officials discovered Hurt kept more than $6,000 in cash, he turned over just $5,500.
Earlier this month, a grand jury indicted Hurt on two counts of theft over $1,000, one count of theft under $500 and one count of misconduct.
In Tennessee, local law enforcement agencies keep 100 percent of the proceeds from cash and property seized under civil asset forfeiture, which gives agencies a financial incentive to seize property. Additionally, according to the Institute for Justice, local law enforcement agencies are not required to report information on how forfeiture funds are used or how much cash and property is seized.
The group gave the Volunteer State a “D” in a report examining forfeiture laws across all 50 states.
“Sgt. Hurt seemed to think he could get away with keeping $6,000, probably because of poor record keeping and lax enforcement. That no doubt factored into his calculus to steal it in the first place,” Jason Snead, a research associate at The Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, told The Daily Signal.
“The real question is, how many ‘Sgt. Hurts’ are there? Without thorough and publicly available forfeiture reporting, it is impossible to say. Strict enforcement of reporting requirements is an important deterrent to this sort of abuse,” he continued.
In addition to a lack of reporting requirements, Snead said law enforcement’s ability to keep all of the proceeds from forfeitures contributes to a system rife with corruption and abuse.
“You wind up with a system where law enforcement is dependent on substantial sums of money coming from outside the normal budgetary process, with little transparency and virtually no accountability,” he said.
Civil asset forfeiture is a procedure that gives law enforcement the power to seize property if it’s suspected of being connected to a crime. Law enforcement agencies ramped up their use of forfeiture during the war on drugs as a way to curb money laundering and drug trafficking.
However, in recent years, a number of forfeiture victims have come forward after having money and property seized by law enforcement. The victims were never charged with a crime, and experts have argued officers are policing for profit.