House committee guts civil asset forfeiture reform bill

By Steve Wilson
March 4, 2020

A committee in the Mississippi House gutted what could’ve been a big reform to the state’s civil asset forfeiture system.

House Bill 1398 is sponsored by Rep. Dana Criswell (R-Southaven) and would’ve put caps on what kind of property that state and local governments can acquire via civil asset forfeiture.

The House Judiciary B Committee rewrote the bill (known as a committee substitute), removed the caps, and changed it to end a practice where law enforcement or prosecutors could request a property owner to waive their rights to their property, often in exchange for charges to be dropped. The new language in the bill will also change the burden of proof for forfeiture to clear and convincing evidence.

The original bill would’ve had greater impacts. It would’ve exempted from civil asset forfeiture:

  • Homestead real property.
  • Currency totaling $500 or less.
  • A vehicle with a market value of $2,500 or less.

According to the most recent analysis of the civil asset forfeiture database by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, of the 353 seizures in 2019, 118 of them of them had a total value of $2,500 or less.

There were 41 vehicles seized by law enforcement with an average value of $5,091 in 2019. Of those, 29 would’ve been below the cap set by Criswell’s bill and would’ve have been eligible for forfeiture.

Despite the narrative that civil asset forfeiture is a vital tool for busting big drug cartels, most seizures are small in size. Only three seizures were $60,000 or more in 2019 and 177 had a total value of $10,000 or less.

Right now, state and local law enforcement agencies can seize any property without limits or a cap, even if the property owner hasn’t been charged with a crime. If prosecutors can prove in civil court, with a lower burden of proof, that the property has been used in the commission of a crime or is the proceeds of a crime, a judge can rule in favor of the seizing authority to take title to the property. 

Then the property can be reused by the seizing agency or sold, with the proceeds split 80 percent between the seizing agency and 20 percent to the attorney (either a district attorney or one from the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics) that took the case to court.

For the property owner to prevent their property being forfeited to law enforcement, they must file a lawsuit. That happens seldomly, as only 39 property owners contested the forfeiture in court (11.04 percent) in 2019. 

In 2018, 30 property owners filed suit to recover their property, or 9.52 percent.


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