Documenting civil asset forfeiture in Mississippi once required lots of public record requests and a lot of inside knowledge, since there was no central database cataloging the practice.
Now, two years later, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics runs a database that provides some information, but has plenty of gaps. That leaves a lot of holes that require incident reports, which are public records and provide a way for law enforcement agencies to document suspected crimes or complaints.
The Hinds County Sheriff’s Office initially charged the Mississippi Center for Public Policy $450 for 18 incident reports, which adds up to $25 per incident report.
As part of digging deeper into our first two analyses, we’ve submitted public records requests to get more information on seizures from the initial 18 months the civil asset forfeiture database was in operation.
Most agencies were cooperative and shared their incident reports for a reasonable price (agencies have to be rightly compensated for their time searching for the records and to provide copies). Some laudable agencies dedicated to transparency — such as the Richland Police Department — didn’t even charge a fee to provide requested records.
Compared to Hinds, the Biloxi Police Department charged MCPP $78.30 for 19 incident reports and the Southaven Police Department charges $10 per report
State public records law says that governmental bodies can charge what it costs to share records and have to use the lowest-paid employee assigned to record search duties to hold down costs. They also recommend in their model public records rules that copy fees be limited to 15 cents per page.
So we filed a public records complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission. When you file one of these complaints, the governmental body has 14 days to reply. After that, the commission can dismiss the complaint, issue a preliminary finding or set a hearing for the complaint.
Once the two weeks had passed, the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office responded and decided to lower the costs to a more reasonable $8.10.
There is one problem with the records provided. The Hinds County Sheriff’s Office said that incident reports were only available for eight of the 18 forfeiture cases listed in the first 18 months on the civil asset forfeiture database. They said the other records were missing.
The law requires only law enforcement agencies to list the description and value of the item seized, a copy of the notice to intent to forfeit, any petitions by property owners to contest the forfeiture and any judge’s order that would include those that cover final disposition of the seized property.