August 1, 2014

When Tainted Assets Become Symbols of Hope: Tennessee’s Human Trafficking Asset Forfeiture Law

by Lucille J. Andrzejewski

Other states can learn a lesson from Tennessee, which is the only state that has passed an asset forfeiture law that funnels property seized in connection with sex trafficking into training programs for law enforcement officials.[1] The law takes the proceeds from criminal human trafficking and divides them between forfeiture expenses and expenses for human trafficking training programs. The first of its kind to specifically designate proceeds for educating law enforcement officials,[2] the Tennessee law acknowledges that officials need training on how to distinguish the victims of human trafficking from the actual perpetrators of the crime.[3]  

Other states have enacted laws that specify what should happen to assets seized in the course of a human trafficking crime.[4] In some states, the proceeds from any forfeiture of criminal, sex trafficking-related assets are deposited directly into the general fund of the state.[5] In other states, all or a portion of the proceeds are designated to compensate the victims in restitution or civil damage suits.[6] Some states set up a fund to be used for the sole purpose of aiding sex trafficking victims. There are also differences in how the money is distributed under various state programs, for example, through grants to individual victims or to not-for-profits working on broader sex trafficking issues.[7]

However, Tennessee passed a law that allocates a specified portion of all proceeds to the training of the law enforcement officials responsible for investigating sex trafficking cases.[8] Specifically, any proceeds that result from a sex trafficking bust are first applied to the “reasonable expenses” of the forfeiture proceeding.[9] The remaining funds are then distributed in a structured fashion: 20% is transmitted to the law enforcement agency whose investigation resulted in the forfeiture “for use in training and equipment for the enforcement of the human trafficking laws,” and 20% is transmitted to the “district attorneys general conference for education, expenses, expert services, training or enhancement of resources for the prosecution of and asset forfeiture in human trafficking cases.”[10] The remaining proceeds are transmitted to the “anti-trafficking fund,” which distributes the leftover funds to not-for-profit organizations that provide services to victims of human trafficking.[11]

The right financing for any noble cause can make all the difference. This is no different for the eradication of human trafficking, which is plagued by the problems of under-detection and misidentification. The Tennessee legislature has taken the mission of eradication one step further. Instead of limiting itself to allocating funds to generally address trafficking, whether through funding not-for-profits or ensuring that the victims are fairly compensated, the Tennessee legislature has pinpointed law enforcement training at the state level, a critical element in protecting victims and ending human trafficking networks.[12] By ensuring that funds exist to address this problem, Tennessee is one step closer to eliminating human trafficking within its borders. Margie Quinn, the assistant special agent of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (“TBI”) who is fronting a new education program for law enforcement summarizes this problem perfectly: "It's about getting people to recognize or think about things in a different way, subtly changing perception.”[13] Tennessee has recognized that this change in perception must start with the law enforcement officials who are addressing human trafficking straight on, and have enacted legislation accordingly.

[1] Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-312 (2014); see also (describing the achievements of Jim Coley, the government representative who sponsored this bill). To see how other states treat the proceeds of asset forfeiture (when they address the point at all), see, e.g., D.C. Code § 22-1838 (2013); S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-2090 (2013); Kan. State. Ann. § 60-4014 (2012).

[2] Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-312 (2014).

[3]See TBI Releases First Study on Human Sex Trafficking in Tennessee, (Dec. 21, 2012), (discussing a TBI and Vanderbilt Center for Community Studies study on the prevalence of sex trafficking, and the need for better training to help enforcers distinguish between perpetrators and victims).

[4]See, e.g., D.C. Code § 22-1838 (2013); S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-2090 (2013); Kan. State. Ann. § 60-4014 (2012). Other states, like Virginia, have not enacted a statute to address asset forfeiture in the course of a sex trafficking investigation.

[5]See, e.g., Conn. Gen. Stat. § 54-36p(f) (2013) (directing the seized property to be applied to the payment of (1) the balance due on any lien accrued in the course of a forfeiture proceeding; (2) storage, maintenance, and security costs of the property; (3) court costs; any left over money is directed to the General Fund).

[6]See, e.g., N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 633:8(XVIII) (2013) (directing the remaining funds, after the payment of costs, to satisfy any order of restitution or compensation imposed by the court).

[7]See, e.g., Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 10, § 66A (2013) (setting up a fund known as the “Victims of Human Trafficking Trust Fund,” which provides funds to award grants to non-profits and community-based programs).

[8] Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-312 (2014).

[9]Id. at § 39-13-312(b).  

[10]Id. at § 39-13-312(e).

[11]Id. at § 39-13-312(e), 39-13-312(f)(1).

[12]See Tony Gonzalez, Trafficking Experts Seek to Shore Up Training for Protection of Vulnerable Children, The Tennessean (Feb. 24, 2014)  (“Of responses to the TBI survey, 79 percent of agencies reported a lack of training to identify trafficking.”).

[13]TBI Says Education Needed to Stop Sex Trafficking, WKRN-TV (Dec. 7, 2011), ("Patrol officers respond to something they think is a domestic [and] it's not actually a domestic, it's actually a pimp and a prostitute or a human trafficking victim.").

(Photo Credit: Cover of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's 2013 report on human trafficking in the state.)