In Mississippi just 18 months ago, law enforcement agencies enjoyed a “eat what you kill” system where they could merely tie property or cash to a crime to a judge and be able to seize it, even if the property owner wasn’t charged with a crime. The property owner would have to file suit in civil court within 30 days to recover their property or else the agency would get to keep the property.
Property owners who found themselves on the wrong end of the forfeiture system in Mississippi would often let the government keep their property without a challenge simply because of the cost associated with a challenge.
Worst of all, law enforcement agencies in Mississippi didn’t have to keep any records of their forfeitures, either.
Giving law enforcement agencies the ability to take property and cash from citizens while using the proceeds to pad their budgets is antithetical to limited government.
Now, progress has been made in the Mississippi Legislature to overturn this unconstitutional encroachment on private property rights. Two years ago, a bill was signed into law that forced law enforcement agencies to keep records of forfeitures for submission on a database run by the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. They must also submit a forfeiture warrant to a judge for review.
Last year, the law that authorized administrative forfeiture was quietly allowed to expire. Administrative forfeiture allowed law enforcement agencies to seize property with a value less than $20,000 and not even have to file paperwork with a court explaining the basis for the seizure.
These are two important, but first steps in reform — more needs to be addressed.
First, the forfeiture database doesn’t require law enforcement officials to list the type of drug that was involved with the seizure, the circumstances of the seizure or whether charges were filed in connection with the seizure. Adding this to existing law would help give citizens a more transparent view into civil asset forfeiture.
There’s also going to be push in the Legislature this session to bring back administrative forfeiture. Bringing back this forfeiture without oversight from the court system is an invitation to mischief.
The ultimate goal of this reform needs to be what Nebraska, New Mexico and North Carolina have done — and that’s completely outlaw civil asset forfeiture. Property owners should be charged with a crime in order for law enforcement agencies to seize their property and a conviction should result in forfeiture.