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Right on Crime | September 5, 2018
Governor Bryant, Lieutenant Governor Reeves, and Speaker Gunn,
We would like to congratulate and recognize the state of Mississippi for being a leader in reforming civil asset forfeiture. We applaud the Mississippi legislature for allowing administrative forfeiture’s sunset provision to become law this July, ending administrative forfeiture in Mississippi and safeguarding the property rights of innocent Mississippians.
Conservatives rightly understand that private property rights are the bedrock of a free society, and the bar must be high for a government to take property from its citizens. Ending the process of administrative forfeiture places Mississippi among the leading states making progress on civil asset forfeiture reform that protects these fundamental rights.
As you may know, civil asset forfeiture is a controversial practice that can result in innocent people losing their property to the state. While the law can be used to deprive convicted drug dealers of their ill-gotten gains, cases of abuse throughout the country indicate that the practice has resulted in untold numbers of innocent property owners losing their cars, guns, and cash to government agents without ever being charged or convicted of a crime.
A growing number of states have crafted legislation to rein in the process of civil asset forfeiture and protect private property owners, and the leaders in reforms, New Mexico and Nebraska, have ended civil forfeiture and replaced it with criminal forfeiture.
Mississippi began this reform process in 2016 by creating a legislative task force to examine the state’s forfeiture laws and recommend changes to protect the due process rights of Mississippians and bring more transparency to the process. That committee’s work resulted in the passage of a bill in 2017 that took a first step toward these goals in three ways:
1. Requiring seizing agencies to obtain a seizure warrant issued by a judge within 72 hours of seizing property
2. Creating a publicly accessible website documenting all forfeitures
3. Preventing the use of private counsel to prosecute forfeiture cases
On the heels of these commendable changes, Mississippi continued its efforts to protect innocent property owners this year by ending the process of administrative forfeiture. This particular practice has come under increasing scrutiny due to its circumvention of judicial safeguards. Administrative forfeiture allowed agents of the state to take property valued under $20,000 and forfeit it by merely providing the individual with a notice. In order to appeal the ruling, an individual was required to file a petition in court, incurring significant legal fees. For these reasons, administrative forfeiture was viewed as a particularly pernicious policy that placed lower income defendants in the impossible situation of deciding whether to pay a large legal bill to get their property back.
This change does not impact the ability of state agencies to seize assets using the judicial civil asset forfeiture process. Each of our organizations support further reforming this process to protect the property rights of innocent citizens. The intent of these provisions, separating convicted criminals from their ill-gotten gains, is a laudable one that will remain available to state agencies through the proper judicial channels. But no person should face the threat of losing their property without ever being charged and convicted of a crime and without judicial oversight of the forfeiture of property in the same criminal process. We applaud the state of Mississippi for this step forward to protect the property rights of all Mississippians.
Grant Callen, President
Aaron Rice, Director
Mississippi Justice Institute
Jon Pritchett, CEO
Mississippi Center for Public Policy
David Safavian, General Counsel
The American Conservative Union
Jason Pye, Vice President of Legislative Affairs
Marc Levin, Vice President of Criminal Justice Policy
Right on Crime
Jason Snead, Senior Policy Analyst
The Heritage Foundation