Mississippi has repeatedly made headlines for reining in civil asset forfeiture, a practice that allows government agencies to take cash or property from citizens under mere suspicion. Despite efforts to instill transparency in a practice that is riddled with abuse, recent reports reveal state agencies are only partially complying.
A few months ago, Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics (MBN) launched a searchable website that details cash and property seized through civil asset forfeiture. The website was mandated and funded through House Bill 812, by Rep. Marc Baker (R-Brandon), which was passed in 2017. The bill also established new guidelines for forfeiting property, which states government agencies must give probable cause for each seizure. Judges then have 72 hours to grant a warrant, otherwise the cash or property must be returned to the person from which it was taken.
Some might ask how returning seizures to innocent citizens could possibly be seen as a problem, and the answer is the financial incentive to seize and forfeit property in the first place. Government agencies can keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds from forfeited cash and property. Benefactors of the practice have argued it’s needed to fund local departments.
That’s not a fiscally responsible or sustainable funding system. Not only should funding be appropriated in local budgets, but local departments should never depend on funding that essentially requires officers to act as de facto revenue generators. MBN seized $4 million in cash in 2015 alone, so the financial incentive is pretty clear.
Mississippi lawmakers recognized the potential of abuse in civil asset forfeiture and passed the 2017 reforms to help prevent cash or property to be taken from innocent Mississippians.
There is a loophole to this, or at least there used to be. Prior to July 2018, agencies could circumvent the warrant process, and merely give the property owner notice, so long as the value of the property was less than $20,000. Property owners would then have to go through an arduous court process to try and get their stuff back, oftentimes spending more in legal fees than the actual property is worth. It’s a huge deterrent to property owners and considered an easy win for agencies who seized the property. However, lawmakers allowed the administrative forfeiture provision to sunset. That’s where MBN’s partial compliance problem comes in.
MBN continued to seize items through administrative forfeiture after the law ended. The Mississippi Justice Institute spotted the violation, which elicited a quick response from MBN. The agency reached out to victims with notice that they’ll be returning seizures, totaling over $100,000 in cash along with other items.
The Director of MNB, John Dowdy, told the Associated Press that the agency was “unaware of the sunset provision.” He also said the agency needed administrative forfeiture to combat drug crimes and is currently trying to convince lawmakers to restore the practice.
If civil or administrative forfeiture is truly the noble effort proponents make it out to be, they shouldn’t have an issue sticking to criminal forfeiture.
Criminal forfeiture requires a much higher burden of proof—a trial in criminal court and a guilty verdict. Civil asset forfeiture does not require criminal conviction, much less an arrest or criminal charge. Right on Crime’s senior researcher and former police officer Randy Petersen recently wrote, “Conflating civil asset forfeiture with criminal asset forfeiture is a common parlor trick used to confuse the general public.”
Consider some of the items reported by Reason that were taken by MBN in 2015: turntables, weed eaters, flat screen TVs, power drills and cash seizures as low as $75 – not exactly what citizens pictures when they think of drug lords.
The low evidentiary barrier and lack of due process for civil asset forfeiture would make the Founders cringe. Americans should not have cash or property taken under mere suspicion, and many do not realize civil or administrative forfeiture exists until they themselves become victims.
Right on Crime applauds Mississippi lawmakers for ending administrative forfeiture and urges the legislature to consider further reforming civil asset forfeiture as to require a criminal conviction before more innocent Mississippians lose their cash or property.