Will Mississippi buck national trends and go backwards on civil forfeiture reform?

By Aaron Rice
January 30, 2019

The quest by Rep. Mark Baker (R-Brandon) to reauthorize administrative forfeiture in Mississippi is gaining national attention. And not necessarily for the right reasons.

Last week, a coalition of numerous conservative organizations, in Mississippi and nationally, including Mississippi Center for Public Policy, Mississippi Justice Institute, American Conservative Union, Empower Mississippi, FreedomWorks, Institute for Justice, and Right of Crime sent a letter to Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and Speaker Philip Gunn asking them to oppose the reauthorization.

“Conservatives rightly understand that private property rights are the bedrock of a free society, and the bar must be high for a government to seize property from its citizens and transfer ownership to the state through forfeiture litigation,” the letter reads. “Civil forfeiture is controversial because it often means innocent people losing their property to the state in processes that are complex and divorced from the prosecution of the crime that was the basis for the initial seizure.”

One of the preeminent Constitutional scholars in the country has also weighed in.

“Mississippi legislators should think hard before reinstating the controversial and questionable practice of administrative (sometimes called “civil”) forfeiture,” Ilya Shapiro, Senior Fellow at MCPP and the Director of the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, said. “This is a practice that allows state agents to seize property they allege to have been involved in a crime without so much as a court order. And since these are considered civil actions, property owners get few of the protections typically enjoyed by criminal defendants.

“In many past forfeiture cases, property was stripped away without any conviction, and sometimes without charges being filed at all—and then people had to petition the court and pay exorbitant legal fees to get their stuff back. Administrative forfeiture is simply at odds with basic American principles of fairness, justice, and due process. Reinstating it in Mississippi would be a step backwards, especially when many other states are reforming their laws to bolster property rights, not undermine them.”

In 2017, Mississippi became the 19th state in the country to make reforms to civil asset forfeiture in the past half-decade when the state mandated a searchable forfeiture database. That number is now up to 29 states.

If House Bill 1104 becomes law, this would be a rare instance where a state is actually walking back from reforms.


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