Tennessee Corruption Case Raises Questions about Forfeiture and Police Office Culture

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On a summer Tennessee night in 2021, Deputy Daniel Jacobs of the Tipton County Sheriff’s Office attempted, essentially, to sell a 2010 Lincoln MKZ to himself. The sheriff’s office had seized the Lincoln some years ago, based on suspicion that it had been involved in the illegal drug trade; the office then used the car for undercover work.

Deputy Jacobs had recently been appointed the office’s evidence custodian, which allowed him to post office assets for sale on GovDeals.com. He posted the car on GovDeals.com at 1:20 in the morning; 30 seconds later a friend of Jacobs’s snapped it up for $500, using the site’s “Buy It Now” option. The Lincoln was worth roughly $2,800; at $500, you might say (with a bit of literary license) that it was a steal. A subsequent investigation revealed the details of Jacobs’s breach of the public trust.

In the course of that investigation, Deputy Jacobs admitted that he had a friend buy it for his own personal use. Jacobs has now been indicted for a string of related charges.

Like all narratives of public corruption, it’s embarrassing and tawdry for the people involved. But it makes me wonder: How did Jacobs get the idea to do this? What did he learn from the morals and customs of the Tipton County Sheriff’s Office?

Deputy Jacobs lived in Tennessee, a state that seizes the property of its residents thousands of times every year. As in most states, a Tennesseean doesn’t have to be guilty of a crime to face seizure or forfeiture. Indeed, most people who face seizure and forfeiture are never even formally accused of a crime. All that is needed for seizure and forfeiture to occur is suspicion.

I wonder just what went into Deputy Jacobs’s decision to take the Lincoln from his office. After all, he regularly saw his own government take property from its owners—people who, again, had never been shown to have committed a crime. I wonder if he ever thought: Is it really so different if I just take a little property for myself from the office? After all, he routinely saw possession of property get transferred from people to the sheriff’s office, with little or no due process of law.

I wonder if, in the back of his mind, he thought: Is there really such a big difference between what my police department is doing and what I’m doing? My department takes the car from the people who owned it—why shouldn’t I take the car from the sheriff’s department?

I get nervous just thinking about it. I regularly see advocates of civil forfeiture arguing that, regardless of the fairness problems inherent in civil forfeiture, the process is justified by its practicality. But when we tell government agents to carry out morally flawed policies, shouldn’t we expect the toleration of immoral government policies to contaminate those public servants’ other decisions?