This past session, Mississippi joined a number of other states in reforming civil asset forfeiture laws.
Lawmakers allowed the administrative forfeiture provision to sunset, meaning the previous law ceased to be in effect at the end of June. In response, Mississippi Center for Public Policy and the Mississippi Justice Institute joined with Empower Mississippi and national conservative organizations in thanking the legislative leadership for ending administrative forfeiture in the state.
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. This had the net result of requiring the individual to pay an often-large legal bill to get his or her property back. This, naturally, has an outsized negative effect on low-income households.
Asset forfeiture reforms
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 have their cars or other property seized for the alleged crimes of their children. This happens 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. Repealing administrative forfeiture is another important step.
Voters oppose civil forfeiture
Polling shows a large cross-section of Mississippi voters oppose the practice of civil asset forfeiture.
According to a poll from 2016, 88 percent of voters oppose civil forfeiture, including 89 percent of Republican voters. Every category of Mississippi voter identified in the poll — by race, age, sex, political party and district — is against police taking property from people not convicted of a crime.
By reforming the civil forfeiture system, Mississippi is adopting policies that are in-line with voters in the state and reforms that other states have enacted.