MBN returns improperly seized assets

Brett KittredgeAvatar

The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics has begun to return property that the agency seized after the administrative forfeiture law was repealed.

This past session, the Mississippi legislature allowed the administrative forfeiture provision to sunset, meaning the previous law ceased to be in effect at the end of June. Administrative forfeiture allows agents of the state to take property valued under $20,000 and forfeit it by merely providing the individual with a notice. An individual would then have to file a petition in court to appeal.

On September 19, 2018, MBN sent notices allowing retrieval of seized property, totaling more than $100,000, to eight individuals. This includes:

  • $3,757 of seized currency to Courtney Walker of Biloxi
  • $3,000 of seized currency and two rifles to Michael Willis of Cyrstal Springs
  • $88,737 of sized currency to Luis Medeles and Christopher Zavala, both of Brownsville, Texas
  • $1,860 of seized currency to Dewayne Spearman of Pontotoc
  • $11,938 of seized currency to Tejinder Kaur of Brandon
  • $2,300 of seized currency and a pistol to Dexter Danzel Conner of Tuscaloosa, Ala.
  • A seized handgun and a holster to Jessica Meredith of Florence

On September 10, the Mississippi Justice Institute sent a letter to MBN advising the agency of the change in the law after it became apparent that they were continuing to seize property after the July 1 repeal date.

“We are glad to see that the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics is not only following the law, but is taking corrective action in cases where administrative forfeiture procedures were incorrectly used,” said Aaron Rice, Director of the Mississippi Justice Institute. “As a public interest law firm dedicated to ensuring that our laws are carried out in a way that protects liberty and honors constitutional rights, we are happy to have been able to assist MBN in carrying out its duties while remaining in compliance with new changes in Mississippi law.”

Until 2017, Mississippi was the wild west of sorts when it came to civil asset forfeiture. In 2015, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, along with local police departments, seized nearly $4 million in cash.

They seized amounts as low as $75. They seized trucks, cars, ATVs, riding lawnmowers, utility trailers, and 18-wheelers; an arsenal of assorted handguns, shotguns, and rifles; cell phones, cameras, laptops, tablets, turntables, and flat screen TVs; boat motors, weed eaters, and power drills; and one comic book collection, according to a report from Reason.

And that does not include numbers from police departments that work independently of the Bureau of Narcotics. Until 2017, they didn’t track or publish asset forfeiture data.

Moreover, family members, especially parents, often had their cars or other property seized for the alleged crimes of their children. This happened even though the parents are not connected to the illegal activity. For example, in 2015, the Desoto County Sheriff’s Department agreed to return a 2006 Chevy Trailblazer owned by the mother of the petitioner, Jesse Smith, in exchange for $1,650.

In 2017, the legislature provided needed reforms. Now, seizing agencies must obtain a search warrant issued by a judge within 72 hours of seizing property. And all forfeitures are posted on a publicly accessible website.