By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — In Morristown, Tennessee, police seized cars and demanded cash, which a police sergeant allegedly kept for himself — $6,000 in all, a state Comptroller’s report says.
Why Morristown officers seized the cars in the first place is unclear.
Tennessee Department of Safety ordered now former police Sgt. Michael Hurt to return those vehicles to the original owners, according to state Comptroller Justin Wilson’s report, released Wednesday.
Hurt abused his authority, the report says.
“Frequently, vehicle owners were required to pay the department a cash settlement as well as towing and storage fees. These payments were collected by Sgt. Hurt,” the report said.
Hurt, the report went on, “altered records, failed to record or receipt the majority of the cash and made a false entry in police department records in an apparent attempt to conceal his activities.”
Hurt’s contact information was unavailable.
Morristown Police officials did not immediately return Tennessee Watchdog’s requests for comment Wednesday.
Adam Bates, a policy analyst in the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, said the nature of civil asset forfeiture laws make it ripe for abuse.
“We have this system going on around the country where people are having their property taken and it’s going into the bank accounts of police departments. It’s not that great a logical leap to hear of something like this,” Bates said of the Morristown audit.
“It’s especially troubling because there are so few reporting requirements on civil asset forfeiture. Most jurisdictions do not have comprehensive requirements for law enforcement to tell publicly how much they seized, and that can make it difficult to find discrepancies now and then.”
Morristown has a population of about 30,000, according to the most recent U.S. Census.
Whether other officers had as much direct control over the money is unclear.
“You would expect big metropolitan police departments to have more robust processes in place to guarantee this kind of stuff doesn’t happen, but you get in more rural areas and the individual officers are required to exercise more integrity,” Bates said.
“They don’t have these internal accountability mechanisms. Police are good people generally, but they are human, and when humans act they can pull one over on people. This civil forfeiture regime really allows for that.”
According to the audit, a Hamblen County grand jury indicted Hurt on charges of two counts of theft over $1,000, one count of theft over $500 and one count of official misconduct.
District Attorney Dan Armstrong told Tennessee Watchdog on Wednesday he had no comment beyond what was in Wilson’s report.
Comptrollers have complained before about Morristown residents allegedly taking taxpayer money for their own personal use.
As we reported, Hamblen County’s former director of solid waste resigned earlier this year after comptrollers alleged he took more than $227,000 from taxpayers and used it for, among other things, a trip to Disney World.
UPDATE: After Wednesday’s deadline, Morristown Police Department spokeswoman Natalie Pugh told Tennessee Watchdog that owners of seized vehicles were arrested on charges of criminal activity.
People who owned the cars were either found not guilty or a court found them guilty. If found not guilty there was a court-imposed settlement and they did not have to pay towing and storage fees to get their cars back, Pugh said.
Hurt served with the department for 15 years and was dismissed from his job in February, she added.
Contact Christopher Butler at [email protected]