Currently the House Civil Justice Subcommittee is reviewing a new bill, HB 0421, introduced by Representative Martin Daniel, that seeks to establish a new procedure when it comes to the seizing and forfeiture of assets in cases of criminal activity. In short, the bill “requires conviction for the underlying criminal conviction before forfeiture can occur; requires clear and convincing evidence that the property is subject to forfeiture; and provides that all forfeited or abandoned money be deposited in state general fund and all property forfeitures be sold and the proceeds go into state general fund.”

If you’ve never been arrested of a crime, you may not know about Tennessee’s laws regarding civil or criminal forfeiture – but we do. In fact, Bryan Delius has represented numerous people who, despite not being convicted of a crime, still have their assets seized by the government. This is why he went before the House Criminal Justice subcommittee on March 1, 2017, to testify how the byzantine system the State Department of Safety utilizes ends up strong-arming innocent people out of their hard-earned money and assets.

Bryan’s argument is, briefly, this: that people who commit crimes should not be allowed to keep their ill-gotten gains. However, even innocent people – people who are found not guilty of criminal activity – often have a difficult time getting their assets back, and often have to wait months, spend additional money and even hire attorneys to retrieve from the State what never should have been taken in the first place.

The Committee spent more than two hours listening to opinions and asking questions. Bryan’s testimony was so effective, however, that the session ended with Chairman Mike Carter resetting the vote to a later date so that the law can be reviewed and changed to make it better and stronger. In Mr. Carter’s own words:

“I’m proud to be a part of a profession that has people like Mr. Delius in it. I’ve never met the guy before, but he’s number one in my book.”

The problem is the State Department of Safety, NOT the cops

The argument that local Tennessee law enforcement is “policing for profit” keeps coming up, but we don’t see local law enforcement as the issue. The problems Tennessee has, as Bryan points out, have less to do with law enforcement and more to do with Tennessee’s Department of Safety. Generally, law enforcement are simply following procedures out forth by the State. When a person is charged with, and convicted of, a crime, then his or her assets should be handed over to the state.

The problem is that innocent people (called “innocent owners” in the law) have to jump through a series of hoops to get their property back, and often face pushback form the State itself. For example, Bryan represented a woman named Kathy Stiltner. Ms. Stiltner was stopped, and during the stop, police found 28 pills and $11,922 in cash. The officer seized the loose pills and the money, believing it was drug proceeds. He relayed these facts to a General Sessions Court judge, who issued a seizure warrant.

Those pills, as it turns out, were over-the-counter antacids. The cash was from a check she received from the estate of her late mother. Ms. Stiltner provided a copy of the cancelled check to the prosecutor in the case, who then agreed to dismiss the drug charges and asked the court to order that her money be returned.

Then, four months later, the State’s Department of Safety filed a Motion before the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety to order that Ms. Stiltner return her money to the Sevierville Police Department “pending the administrative forfeiture proceedings.”

It was her money. Those charges were dropped because she was innocent of the crime. The responsible local district attorney and officers all agreed that Ms. Stiltner was innocent of any drug crimes and that the money was rightfully hers. Despite the clear evidence, it took months before the State would let up.

Stories like this one – all too true, and happening all too often – are why Bryan Delius testified before the House Committee. His testimony showed how deeply flawed the system is when it comes to seizing the assets of innocent people. Even people who had different viewpoints about asset forfeiture and its purpose acknowledged Bryan’s points (Lee Tramel from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office attested to Bryan’s skill and reputation, saying “if he

[Bryan] tells you something you know it’s the truth”).

And now, the bill is going back for further debate and review because Chairman Carter wants to make sure it is the best possible bill moving forward. Thanks in part to Bryan, we may see real, genuine justice reform in Tennessee, and innocent people will no longer be able to be exploited by a loophole in the system.

Congratulations, Bryan, on this extraordinary testimony.