Civil forfeiture opponents at the Institute for Justice report on Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signing a bill on Monday, March 13, that adds new transparency requirements to civil forfeiture. Th3 law still allows law enforcement to confiscate property without filing criminal charges.
Whenever a law enforcement agency seizes property, it must provide a description of the property and its value, as well as the name of the seizing agency, and copies of any petition that contest the forfeiture. That information will then be posted on a publicly searchable website, which would be created and maintained by the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. Grants would be withheld from noncompliant agencies.
In addition, HB 812 would require agencies to obtain a seizure warrant within 72 hours of seizure and oblige agencies to request prosecuting forfeiture within 30 days of seizure. However, the new law does not require agencies to account for their forfeiture fund spending.
Under Mississippi’s civil forfeiture laws the government just has to connect property to a crime by a preponderance of the evidence in order to forfeit it. However, the government bears the burden of disproving an innocent owner claim—an improvement over most states where owners must, in effect, prove their own innocence to win back seized property. Law enforcement agencies may retain 80 percent of forfeiture proceeds when only one agency investigated the case and a full 100 percent if more than one agency was involved, creating a troubling conflict of interest and a strong incentive to seize.
A report by IJ published in January ranked Mississippi as one of the worst states in the country for allowing law enforcement to be completely unbridled in confiscating property.
Between 2000 and 2013, Mississippi law enforcement agencies received an average of almost $3.4 million per calendar year in equitable sharing proceeds from the Department of Justice, totaling more than $47 million over that period. Ninety percent of those proceeds came through joint task forces and investigations, the type of equitable sharing generally exempt from new DOJ rules. Mississippi agencies also received almost $3 million in equitable sharing proceeds from the Treasury Department between 2000 and 2013, or approximately $208,000 per fiscal year. (See graphic below)
In 2015 Watchdog.org reported on the Rankin County City of Richland’s construction of a new $4.1 million law enforcement training facility funded entirely by forfeiture proceeds garnered by police.
A sign posted in front of the newly constructed station read. “Richland Police Station tearfully donated by drug dealers.”
The IJ report says the controversial Richland facility illustrates the conflict of interest created when law enforcement can directly benefit from the proceeds of forfeiture. Such self-funding is especially worrisome in states like Mississippi where agencies are not required to track or publicly report forfeitures or expenditures from forfeiture funds, leaving the public and lawmakers in the dark.
- Guidelines for law enforcement agencies to report to the state the location of each forfeiture, any criminal prosecution actions taken on the property owners, the value of the property and its disposition.
- The construction and maintenance of a searchable website by the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, subject to the provision of funds by the Legislature.
- A new warrant system that would require a county or circuit judge to issue a civil seizure warrant within 72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays. The law enforcement agency would have to inform the judge on what was taken and why it was seized, and explain to the judge the probable cause to justify the seizure. If the judge doesn’t issue a seizure warrant, the property would be returned.
- A requirement that the local district attorney or the MBN prosecute all forfeitures, which would eliminate outside counsel from being hired by law enforcement agencies.