October 20, 2020

Should Mississippi law officers be allowed to seize (and keep) property without court oversight?

When Mississippi law enforcement agencies want to keep property they have seized from a property owner, they now have to prove to a judge that the property is connected to crime.

In a deeper analysis by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy of the state’s asset forfeiture database, 135 of 315 seizures listed in the first 18 months of the database had neither proximity to drugs or distribution of paraphernalia or funds directly traceable to the drug trade. That means 42.9 percent of all forfeitures were considered to be catch-all violations of the state’s Controlled Substances Act without any of the above justifications.

Right now, the state only has civil asset forfeiture which requires judicial oversight, but that could change.

House Bill 1104 is authored by state Rep. Mark Baker (R-Brandon) and it would bring back administrative forfeiture that expired on July 1. This type of forfeiture was for property valued at $20,000 or less and required only a notification to the property owner without any judicial oversight.

The bill will likely make it to the House floor out of the committee Baker chairs, the Judiciary A Committee.

Gov. Phil Bryant has already tweeted his support for the bill, saying that he is “standing with law enforcement.” He said if the bill makes it to his desk, he’ll sign it.

There are procedures provided under the law for forfeiture.

One of those procedures is that, when an agency seizes a vehicle, cash, a weapon or other property, they have to provide the property owner a Notice of Intent to forfeit that property. Most law enforcement agencies use a boilerplate form with six boxes that give a general reason for the forfeiture.

Without doing public record requests for specific incident reports from the law enforcement agencies, these NOIs provide the best view of the justification underlying most forfeitures.

The boxes on the standard forfeiture form include:

  • Vehicle is subject to forfeiture under the state law since it was used to transport or facilitate the transport, sale, receipt, possession or concealment of controlled substances or property. The database has 54 vehicles that were forfeited under this provision.
  • Money was found in close proximity to forfeitable substances.
  • Money was found in close proximity to forfeitable drug manufacturing or distribution paraphernalia.
  • Money was found in proximity to forfeitable records of the importation, manufacture or distribution of controlled substances.
  • Deadly weapon or money is was used or intended for use in violation of state law.
  • Said property subject to forfeiture since it was used or intended for use in violation of state law.
  • Money or property being forfeitable since it was the proceeds or derived from proceeds traceable to exchange in violation of the state law.

According to the analysis, 180 of all seizures or 57.14 percent at least had one box checked that included proximity to drugs or distribution paraphernalia or funds directly traceable to the drug trade.

As for the breakdown:

  • There were 148 or 46.9 percent of the 315 forfeitures that were in direct proximity to drugs.
  • Only 72 forfeitures or 22.8 percent had directly traceable drug proceeds.
  • There were 51 seizures or 16.19 percent involving proximity to paraphernalia for distribution.
  • Only 27 seizures, or 8.5 percent, had all three: proximity to drugs, distribution paraphernalia and traceable funds.

Steve Wilson is the Investigative Editor for Mississippi Center for Public Policy. He can be reached at: wilson@mspolicy.org