Progress on asset forfeiture, but significant problems remain

By Steve Wilson
January 10, 2019

Mississippi law enforcement agencies need little justification to seize property or even cash from owners under state law.

All law enforcement has to do is connect property to a crime to seize it, and can use proceeds from it to supplement their budgets. Those whose property is seized have to prove in a civil court their property was not involved with a crime or the proceeds of a crime.

One case that exemplified this policy occurred at Jackson’s Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport on February 20, 2017. Ashley Tami Renee Phillips was trying to catch a flight when a Transportation Security Administration officer detected $30,000 in cash that was in three bundles in her checked luggage. In the request for forfeiture, the Jackson Airport Police Department alleged that the cash was concealed in clothing in her checked luggage.

The Department brought in a drug dog and the animal alerted to the presence of narcotics on the currency, giving the police the justification to seize it. This despite a study that says that nearly 80 percent of U.S. currency is contaminated by cocaine residue.

Phillips hired a local attorney and contested the seizure, denying that the money was concealed in the clothing in her luggage.

The airport police and Phillips finally reached a settlement that allowed law enforcement to keep $5,000 of the money, with the rest returned to Phillips and her attorney. In most cases, however, it is not worth it to challenge a seizure. Attorney and filing fees often make it cost prohibitive for the value of the seized property.

When a Mississippi law enforcement agency makes a seizure, it has to send a notification, usually by letter, to the property owner that details what was seized and informing them they have 30 days to contest the forfeiture in civil court. If the owner doesn’t contest the forfeiture, the ownership of the property or cash automatically goes to the agency that made the seizure.

Law enforcement agencies can retain 80 percent of the proceeds from any seizure if only one agency was investigating and 100 percent if more than one agency was involved. The remaining 20 percent, if one agency was involved, is shared with the local district attorney’s office or the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics who help file the seizure paperwork with the judge.

In the case of the airport seizure, the Madison and Rankin County District Attorney’s office that filed the request on behalf of the police would receive 20 percent of the $5,000.

Last year, the Mississippi legislature allowed the expiration of the law that authorized administrative forfeiture — which allowed law enforcement agencies to seize property valued at less than $20,000 with only a notice to the property owner.

But even after the law was repealed, agencies continue to seize property under administrative forfeiture. In September, the Mississippi Justice Institute, the legal arm of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, sent a letter to MBN advising the agency of the change in the law after it became apparent that the property seizures continued. Later that month, MBN sent notices allowing retrieval of improperly seized property.

Two years prior, Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law a bill that created a civil asset forfeiture database that is maintained by the MBN. The law also required law enforcement agencies to report some, but not all, data on their seizures. Previously, there was no reporting requirements on which assets were seized.

It also outlawed the practice of law enforcement agencies hiring outside counsel to pursue civil asset forfeiture claims, as it requires them to use either local district attorneys or MBN to handle all legal work on forfeitures.


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