Department of Safety fights for cash that police say was wrongfully seized

From the News Sentinel:
When the Sevierville Police Department learned pills in a woman’s car were antacids and the $11,922 an officer seized as suspected drug money was an inheritance, the agency agreed to drop charges and return the cash.

The Tennessee Department of Safety wants it back.

In a twist on the national debate over police seizures, the police department that conceded its seizure was a mistake has now been forced to hire its own attorney as the safety department’s top forfeiture lawyer wages a legal war likely costing taxpayers far more than the money at issue and based solely on the agency’s suspicion Kathy Stiltner is lying, records obtained by the News Sentinel show.

When the Sevierville Police Department learned pills in a woman’s car were antacids and the $11,922 an officer seized as suspected drug money was an inheritance, the agency agreed to drop charges and return the cash.

The Tennessee Department of Safety wants it back.

In a twist on the national debate over police seizures, the police department that conceded its seizure was a mistake has now been forced to hire its own attorney as the safety department’s top forfeiture lawyer wages a legal war likely costing taxpayers far more than the money at issue and based solely on the agency’s suspicion Kathy Stiltner is lying, records obtained by the News Sentinel show.

Enter Joe Bartlett, who helms the state’s asset forfeiture legal division.

Chief Administrative Law Judge Thomas Stovall held a hearing in March in Knoxville (and ruled against Bartlett’s contention the money should go to the Department of Safety).

…Bartlett is now appealing, and Delius has taken off the gloves in his response, labeling the Department of Safety a thief.

“The department essentially argues that the only way that Ms. Stiltner could prove (the cash was not drug money) is through taking serial numbers of all the bills she received from the estate check, hiring an accountant to review all of her cash spending, and then comparing these notes to the money that was seized,” he wrote. “This is nonsensical, and the department’s position is wholly untenable … This appeal results from the Tennessee Department of Safety’s continued efforts to steal $11,922 from Kathy Stiltner despite uncontroverted evidence that the funds were derived from a legitimate source and a total lack of evidence that the funds resulted from illegal activity.”

Bartlett argued in his appeal brief that Stiltner has “every reason to lie” and dubbed her testimony “extremely vague and devoid of specificity.” She denied involvement with drugs despite a 2006 crack conviction, further eroding her credibility, Bartlett wrote.

A hearing has not yet been set. Stiltner, meanwhile, has spent the money, paying fines for the DUI and for Delius’ legal services.