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In Memphis, car seizures are a lucrative and punishing police tactic

Shawn Douglas works to jump his car after recovering it from the Memphis Police Impound Lot., in Memphis, Tenn. on Feb. 21.BRAD VEST/NYT

MEMPHIS — As he drove to work on a summer afternoon in Memphis last year, Ralph Jones saw a woman on the sidewalk flagging him down. Thinking she was in distress or needed a ride, Jones said, he pulled over.

After a brief conversation in which she tried to lure him to a nearby motel, Jones said, he drove away but was soon stopped by police and yanked from his truck. The 70-year-old welder said that with just 86 cents in his pocket, he had neither the intent nor the money to solicit a prostitute, as the officers were claiming.


His protests were to no avail. Jones was cited, and his truck, along with the expensive tools inside, was seized. The charges were eventually dropped, but the truck and his work equipment remained corralled in a city impound lot for six weeks, when prosecutors finally agreed to return it in exchange for a $750 payment.

“It’s nothing but a racket,” Jones said.

Police departments around the country have long used asset forfeiture laws to seize property believed to be associated with criminal activity, a tactic intended to deprive lawbreakers of ill-gotten gains, deter future crimes, and, along the way, provide a lucrative revenue source for police departments.

It became a favored law enforcement tactic in Memphis, where the elite street crime unit involved in the death of Tyre Nichols on Jan. 7, known as the Scorpion unit, was among several law enforcement teams in the city making widespread use of vehicle seizures.

Like Jones, some of the people affected by the seizures had not been convicted of any crime, and defense lawyers said they disproportionately affected low-income residents and people of color.

Over the past decade, civil rights advocates in several states have successfully pushed to make it harder for police to seize property, but Tennessee continues to have some of the most aggressive seizure laws in the country.


While some states now require a criminal conviction before forfeiting property, Tennessee’s process can be much looser, requiring only that the government show, in a civil process, that the property was more likely than not to have been connected to certain types of criminal activity — a less rigorous burden of proof. Tennessee allows local law enforcement agencies to keep the bulk of the proceeds of the assets they seize.

And the process for getting property back in the state can be prohibitive for those who have little money or the ability to hire a lawyer: Those who fail to file a claim and post a $350 bond within 30 days automatically forfeit their property.

“Tennessee’s forfeiture laws are among the nation’s worst,” said Lisa Knepper, a senior director of strategic research at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that has called for changes in state and federal forfeiture laws.

In Memphis, some of the more than 700 vehicles seized last year were taken from people who were ultimately found guilty of serious criminal charges. But other residents reported in interviews that they were compelled to pay large fees to recover their vehicles even when they had not been convicted of any crime.

In 2021, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis came forward with the city’s plan to combat growing incidents of reckless driving and drag racing with vehicle seizures.


Police officers said it was on suspicion of reckless driving that they first pulled over Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who died after a long and brutal beating by Scorpion officers. Five officers have been charged with murder in the case. Davis subsequently said that she had seen nothing to support the reckless driving allegation. Nichols’s car was taken to the city’s impound lot.

The Scorpion unit was touted for its record of seizing drugs, cash, and cars. In just the first few months of its operations, the city reported that the elite unit had seized some 270 vehicles.

Many of the vehicle seizures have revolved around drugs. In those instances, according to several defense lawyers, the agency often seized a vehicle based on a claim that it was being used in a drug-dealing operation — a common basis for such seizures in many cities intended to deprive drug dealers of their profits and the ability to continue their work.

But even some of those not convicted of a crime said they spent weeks without a car while trying to navigate a complicated court process.

Filing a claim in court requires posting a $350 bond. Sometimes, defense lawyers said, authorities managing the case may offer to release the car without requiring a court hearing if a person pays a fee that can amount to thousands of dollars.

Shawn Douglas Jr. lost his car in the fall after being stopped at a Memphis gas station by officers who reported finding two clear baggies containing marijuana inside a backpack. Douglas was soon in handcuffs, arrested on suspicion of a felony drug infraction, an allegation he denied. His car was sent to impound.


In an interview, Douglas said one of the arresting officers commented to him about his 2015 Dodge Charger: “He said, ‘That would be a great police vehicle. When we take those vehicles we hope people don’t come get them back so we can do drug busts out of them.’ ”

Months later, Douglas’s criminal charges had been dropped, but his car was still in police custody. He was only able to recover it after paying $925, records show; crews towed it out to a dusty lot and handed it over to him, its battery dead. Douglas had to struggle with battery cables to get it started.

“It cost a lot of money,” Douglas said. “It puts you back on everything and creates more stress. When you can’t pay bills, you can’t do anything.”

Neither the police department nor the district attorney’s office responded to questions about the forfeiture cases of Douglas and others interviewed for this article, and they only briefly addressed the city’s forfeiture policy.

In Memphis, as in many cities, revenues from such impound and forfeiture fees are returned to support policing activities, becoming a regular source of revenue.

Memphis has not disclosed how much money it generated for the hundreds of vehicles that were forfeited. The city did report seizing some $1.7 million in cash last year, winning forfeiture of nearly $1.3 million.


This income is most often being generated from the city’s poorest residents, defense lawyers said.

“It’s unfair to a lot of the poorer citizens in Memphis,” said Arthur Horne, who has represented such clients. “It’s a huge tax.”

Vehicle seizures have never been a priority in the city’s overall crime-fighting strategy, Davis said in a brief interview, adding that any money gained from forfeitures was not essential to police operations.

“We haven’t put a high level of priority on asset forfeiture here in Memphis,” she said. “We put more of a priority on violent crime, reducing violent crime.”

She added: “It’s not like we’re out trying to seize vehicles. We have a budget to support the police department.”

Erica R. Williams, communications director for the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, said that prosecutors do not receive any share in proceeds from vehicle forfeitures.

“We attempt to handle these cases as quickly as possible in an effort to minimize the difficulty caused by the seizure of a vehicle, while simultaneously seeking to accomplish the spirit of the statute,” she said, which was to “discourage engagement in future offenses.”

Seven states do not give forfeiture revenues to law enforcement. A few states, including Maine, New Mexico, and North Carolina, do not permit civil proceedings and allow forfeiture only after criminal convictions.

A bill pending in Congress proposes a series of new rules that would raise the standards for the government to win forfeiture, give access to lawyers for people trying to recover their property, and end profit incentives by sending revenues to the Treasury Department’s general fund.

John Flynn, president of the National District Attorneys Association, said efforts seeking to limit forfeitures have at times brought together lawmakers on the left and the libertarian right. But he said such efforts could go too far, undermining a law enforcement tool that he said provides a deterrent to wrongdoers and turns over illegal criminal profits to those trying to fight crime.

“From a prosecutor’s standpoint, any money or vehicles or property gained through illegal conduct should be forfeited,” Flynn said. He said safeguards allowed people to present evidence that their property was not acquired through illegal means.