Mississippi took a small step toward transparency this week as the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics unveiled its new online civil asset forfeiture database.
The creation of the website was mandated by a bill passed in 2017 and signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant that mandated law enforcement agencies report the way a seizure occurred, the location, the disposition of the seized property and whether any criminal charges were involved.
Transparency will allow citizens to see how much property Mississippi law enforcement agencies are seizing and whether the property owners are being charged with crimes. Until the bill was passed, law enforcement agencies didn’t have to maintain records of their seizures.
According to state law, a property owner doesn’t have to be charged with a crime for their property to be seized. To recover their property, a citizen would have to prove in a civil court that the property wasn’t being used in the commission of a crime. Civil courts require a lower burden of proof, making it much harder on the property owner to prove the “innocence” of their property.
Cases of innocent citizens who were never charged with any crimes, yet had property taken from them by police, have been all too common in the news.
Right now, law enforcement agencies can keep 80 percent of the proceeds of seizures and use it to boost their budgets. This creates an incentive for law enforcement agencies to pursue more seizures at the expense of arresting criminals. It could even lead to corruption.
The database will paint a picture of forfeiture in Mississippi and arm citizens and policymakers with the information needed to see if more reforms are required. Twenty-four states have already reined in the practice of civil asset forfeiture, such as requiring a criminal conviction before property is seized.