By Steve Wilson / March 21, 2016 / www.MississippiWatchdog.org
Gun rights advocate Rick Ward filed several Freedom of Information Act requests in January with the city of
Hattiesburg to provide him a list of all the guns seized by its police department since 1991. Some of those guns, Ward
says, were taken in violation of state law.
He was told that the information would cost him more than $5,000, at $5 per page. Ward threatened a lawsuit and the city later reduced the price of the records to $78. Now the Mississippi Legislature is considering creation of a free, searchable databases of all seized property maintained by the state.
Under Mississippi law, law enforcement agencies don’t have to keep any records of seized property. But if House Bill 1410 becomes law, police departments will have to start keeping detailed records. The bill is now before the Senate Accountability, Efficiency, Transparency Committee.
HB 1410, also known as the Asset Forfeiture Transparency Act, would require the state’s Commissioner of Public Safety to maintain a searchable database of all property and cash seized by state and local law enforcement agencies. If the act becomes law, every law enforcement agency would have to file annual reports to the Department of Public Safety detailing:
- Each seizure and its value.
- Whether the suspect was accused of a crime.
- The alleged criminal offense that led to the seizure.
- Whether the property was forfeited under civil or criminal proceedings.
- A description of the case’s resolution.
- How much it cost for the seized property to be sold and the selling price.
- If the property is retained by the agency, what is its use.
- The date of destruction if the property was destroyed by the agency.
Lee McGrath, legislative counsel at the nonprofit Institute for Justice, said the legislation would be important step toward reform.
“It’s an essential first step toward reforming a bad forfeiture system,” McGrath said. “Legislators need to know the facts on how seizures and forfeitures are being used in Mississippi. Reporting will have a salutary and informational effects. Law enforcement will have to reveal what it’s doing and that’ll be beneficial to citizens as well as legislators. Other states have enacted reporting requirements.”
Mississippi civil asset forfeiture laws earned a C- from the Institute for Justice in its report, “Policing for Profit.” The state ranked 20th for federal forfeiture, with $47 million collected from 2000 to 2013. Under current law, law enforcement agencies simply have to connect property to a crime to seize it and use proceeds from it to supplement their budgets. Those whose property is seized have to prove in a civil court that their property was not involved with or the proceeds from a crime.
While seizures and fines are often line items in city budgets around the state, the lack of forfeiture record keeping guidelines keeps all but the most general information out of the public’s hands.
McGrath said that home state of Minnesota could provide an example for Mississippi for the next step in the reform process. Since 2014, Minnesota has limited law enforcement agencies to seizing property only after a criminal conviction or if a property owner confesses to a crime involving the property.
He said Minnesota law enforcement agencies had 7,000 seizures last year, about 20 per day, and the average value of the property or currency was $1,400.
“I think this law will be the basis for a healthy public policy debate about the use of forfeiture and the implications that it has, and the policy of allowing law enforcement agencies to supplement their budgets will come under greater scrutiny,” McGrath said. “I believe sunshine is the best disinfectant.”