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Abusive Car Seizures Are a Booming Business for Memphis Police

financial collapse is big business for police departments across the country. Data from the Institute of Justice says police took over $3 billion from citizens in 42 states and Washington DC in 2018 alone; Half a billion was collected under various state statutes while $2.5 billion was collected under federal statutes. At the state and local level, the financial collapse is lucrative for many city police departments across the country – often to the detriment of citizens who have not committed a crime. The New York Times reports that the Memphis Police Department has impounded vehicles from many residents of the city, often without any legal basis.

Vehicle confiscations have exploded in the city in recent years. It all started in 2021. Supposedly created as an attempt to thwart reckless driving and illegal street racing, Memphis Police Commissioner Cerelyn Davis outlined her plan to crack down by impounding people’s vehicles. The result of this action was the creation of a program called Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, known as the Scorpion Unit. (This is the same unit that did the killing Tire Nichols.) Davis said the police would no longer report people for reckless behavior — they would just take people’s cars.

Out of The New York Times:

“When we identify individuals who recklessly drive far enough to endanger other lives, we want to include your car as well.” she said. “Take the car. Even if the case is dropped in court. We saw it. You made it. You could be uncomfortable for three days without your car. That’s enough.”

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland supported the measure and wanted to go further by not only impounding vehicles but also destroying them. “I don’t care if they spend a day in jail. Let me get their cars and then once a month we’ll all line them up, maybe at the old fairgrounds, Liberty Park, and just demolish them,” he said quoted as saying in 2022.

The unit and confiscations were deemed a success with over 270 vehicles taken in the first few months of operation. But these impounded vehicles were taken at a price.

Even if a crime had been committed, the legal justification for the vehicle confiscations was vague and questionable. defend that spoke to that Just pointed out, for example, that vehicles seized for suspected drug-related offenses often had nothing to do with any type of drug-related crime — and car owners had to navigate a complex court process to get their property back.

Most of the other vehicles were also stolen for the wrong reasons. This is what happened to Shawn Douglas Jr. After he was stopped and searched at a gas station, police said they found two bags of weed in Douglas’ backpack, a claim Douglas denies. The police eventually took away his 2015 Dodge Charger. before you take it Douglas said that Just that one officer remarked that his car “would be a great police vehicle. If we take those vehicles, we hope people don’t take them back so we can turn them into drug robberies.” Months later, all charges against Douglas were dropped, but the city still had his car, so he had to pay $925 to get it back.

Worse still, others trying to get their vehicles back come up against a legal system that was almost deliberately set up against them. And the city is keeping a low profile on how many vehicles it needs and how much money the city is making from these impounds. Until something can be done about how the city is campaigning against other reckless vehicle crime, largely innocent people will continue to pay the price. Go to New York Times for the whole story.



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