Mississippi’s slow, but steady, progress toward reforming the state’s civil asset forfeiture program continued this week in the House.
House Bill 1398, sponsored by Rep. Dana Criswell (R-Olive Branch), would end the 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.
Over the past five years, the state has begun to make small steps from a program that not too long ago had no transparency on what was happening to property rights in the state. Through task force recommendations, the state adopted a transparency website that brought light to what was being forfeited. Two years ago, the legislature let administrative forfeiture – which allows agents of the state to take property valued under $20,000 and forfeit it by merely obtaining a warrant and providing the individual with a notice – die.
Still, significant reforms remain harder to come by. The original language of HB 1398 would’ve put caps on what kind of property that state and local governments can acquire via civil asset forfeiture. That bill would have exempted property, currency totaling $500 or less, and a vehicle with a market value of $2,500 or less from civil asset forfeiture.
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 not 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.
HB 1398 passed 107-10, with ten Republicans voting against it: Reps. William Andrews, Jim Beckett, Kevin Felsher, Jill Ford, Dale Goodin, Gene Newman, Brent Powell, Randy Rushing, Troy Smith, and Mark Tullos.