Bebb explains DTF seizures, forfeitures
by By DAVID DAVIS Managing Editor
Sep 05, 2012 | 2085 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles intended to give 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb the opportunity to address accusations made against his administration of financial and professional misconduct, excessive spending, ethics violations and other alleged improprieties. Our coverage will not attempt to consider every allegation, nor is this intended as a defense or a persecution of the local prosecutor and his office operations.)

The 10th Judicial District Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force is both celebrated and denigrated for its successful drug intervention activities on Interstate 75 and meth lab seizures in Bradley, McMinn, Polk and Monroe counties.

The multijurisdictional law enforcement agency took down more than 50 labs in the first four months of 2004. Bradley County ranked third in meth lab seizures in 2003 and the district was on track to become the No. 1 area of meth production in the state — a distinction currently held by McMinn County. Monroe County is ranked second.

The year 2005 was lucrative for DTF as agents confiscated 2,467 grams of methamphetamine that were confiscated districtwide, but agents hit the mother lode in Bradley County where they mined 1,919 grams of meth, 17 of the 21 meth labs taken out in the district and 28.17 kilos of cocaine. But, the main vein for drug interdiction that year was I-75 where agents Bobby Queen and Matt Bales discovered $1,557,805 in a southbound vehicle. In Polk County, with cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service and Polk County Sheriff Bill Davis, more than 25,000 marijuana plants were seized, according to statements by former 10th Judicial District Attorney General Jerry Estes.

According to the 2005 annual audit by the office of the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, seizures of cash and property totaled $2,284,079 in 2005. The next year was another good year with $1,392,325 in forfeitures of cash and property.

The 10th Judicial District Drug Task Force functioned so well that in January 2007, it was recognized by the Tennessee Narcotics Association as the best narcotics interdiction unit in the state. DTF agent Matt Bales was DTF “Agent of the Year” for eastern Tennessee for detecting and seizing 31 kilos of cocaine.

A Cleveland Daily Banner news story dated Jan. 20, 2007, stated: “During the past few months, DTF agents recovered more than 100 pounds of cocaine, three pounds of crack cocaine, 50 pounds of marijuana and 1,000 ecstasy pills, a half-pound of methamphetamine ice, a number of vehicle seizures that included an 18-wheel rig and a charter passenger bus. The total seizure value is in excess of $2 million.”

In 2008, DTF seized $2,079,270 and $908,968 in 2009 in cash and property. In 2010 and 2011, the totals equaled $535,780 and $794,248.

Annual audits show as DTF’s expenses rose, so did its income. Expenditures increased from $509,004 in 2004 to a high of $2,076,609 in 2008 before declining to $1,535,728 in 2009; $1,345,294 in 2010 and $1,091,948 in 2011.

According to 2004-11 annual audits by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, the agency seized cash and other assets valued at $9,811,841. The agency’s fund balance rose from $203,610 as of July 1, 2003, to a high of $2,874,052 in 2009 and has since steadily decreased to $2,161,892 in 2010 and $1,999,422 as of June 30, 2011, according to the annual audit.

Steve Lawson took over as director of the DTF on Sept. 1, 2010, after Mike Hall resigned and moved to Florida amid rumors of prescription drug abuse. Lawson has implemented a system of checks and balances to monitor all expenditures, evidence and equipment. Instead of keeping forfeited property to sell it at the annual McMinn County government auction, he sells it on the Internet at govdeals.com or at Chattanooga Auto Auction.

In addition, a communications committee comprised of the district attorney and two voting board members provides more oversight of the task force during the time between quarterly board meetings.

However, DTF is sometimes denigrated and questions continue to swirl about how the money has been spent, the handling and disposition of seized assets, and there are claims that not every item confiscated was recorded as seized.

Tenth Judicial District Attorney General Steven Bebb and Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett explained the seizure and forfeiture process in an Aug. 29 interview.

“Every seizure that the drug task force makes, without exception — I’ve never had anybody claim any different — goes through a seizure court in Chattanooga,” Bebb explained. “The people get a receipt if it’s just money. If it’s drugs, they get charged unless the DTF makes them federal witnesses or turns them over to some law enforcement agency because they can assist in some way.”

Hatchett added, “They get a receipt. They can hire a lawyer. They can get a seizure court and seizure court decides if DTF gets it or that person gets it back. We have nothing to do with that.”

Hatchett said the process of seizure and forfeiture is primarily an administrative function of the Tennessee Secretary of State Division of Administrative Hearings though it sometimes occurs in circuit court.

“There is actually a seizure court in Chattanooga,” Hatchett pointed out. “An administrative law judge presides over it. That tribunal decides seizures and you either get it back or you don’t. The primary thing in a seizure is you have to assert ownership, so what you get out on the interstate is the DTF will stop a car, there’s a hidden compartment with $100,000 in it, and everybody in the car says it’s not mine.”

Without being able to establish ownership, they are given a receipt “and if they want to go down there and claim it, they can do it, but they don’t go claim it. They’re not idiots,” Hatchett said. He added, “What are you going to say when we find $100,000 in a hidden compartment — ‘It’s not mine. It’s a rental car. I don’t know anything about it.’”

Bebb stressed, “There has never been a seizure, to my knowledge, that has not gone through seizure court — either cars or cash.”

Cash awarded to the drug task force is deposited into a bank account administered by McMinn County Finance Director Jason Luallen, and property is liquidated.