This week, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed a bill into law that is aimed at shining a light on the state’s system of asset forfeiture. The bill, HB 812, requires police to report how much property they seize using the state’s asset forfeiture laws, establishes a public database of these reported forfeiture proceedings, and implements several procedural reforms intended to ensure compliance and improve accountability.
The new law is the result of the state’s Forfeiture Transparency Task Force, created last year to investigate means of improving transparency and due process and of protecting innocent property owners. Prior to this bill, there was no statewide reporting of forfeitures, and so it is hard to judge the magnitude of the practice within the state. However, according to the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, at least $4 million in assets were forfeited by local law enforcement agencies in 2015. And according to the Department of Justice, between 2000 and 2016, around $56 million has been forfeited to local law enforcement agencies through the use of the federal equitable sharing program. In 2016, $3.8 million was forfeited to local law enforcement through this program.
The database that this law creates is to be maintained by the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics (MBN), and it will be accessible to the public through a website, searchable by case number. It will include not only the agency responsible for the seizure, as well as a description and valuation of the property seized, but also copies of all pertinent documents, including petitions contesting the seizure and rulings on those claims. Furthermore, to ensure that agencies are incentivized to comply with the reporting requirements, the bill makes such compliance a condition of eligibility for state and federal grant money. However, these provisions will only become effective after the legislature appropriates funds for the database.
Regardless of reporting requirements, civil asset forfeiture in Mississippi is short on due process. Currently, forfeiture proceedings not only happen without convicting or even charging the owner with any crime, but the burden is on the owner to prove their property isn’t connected to a crime. This law stops short of addressing these deeper issues, but it does introduce some minor procedural improvements.
The first requires that forfeitures be prosecuted by either the district attorney in the county where the seizure took place or the MBN. This is intended to prevent law enforcement agencies from hiring private attorneys for forfeiture proceedings. Furthermore, if the DA or MBN attorney declines to prosecute, then the responsible agency must return the property within 30 days. The other reform is the requirement that separate seizure warrants be obtained within 72 hours for any property seized that wasn’t expressly stipulated in the original warrant. Without this separate warrant, they would likewise be obliged to return the property. This would prevent the opportunistic seizure of, say, sofas or comic books (items that MS law enforcement have seized in the past) without some independent articulation of probable cause linking them to a crime.
The procedural reforms are set to go into effect later this year, but implementation of the reporting mechanism will take somewhat longer. There remains the separate issue of appropriating funds for the purpose, after which the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics will have one year to get the website up and running. Given its purpose, the bill’s one major shortcoming would be that it doesn’t provide a means to track how law enforcement agencies spend the money they take in through forfeiture. Since forfeiture provides them a stream of funding independent of the political process, it can erode control over how these agencies train and equip themselves. However, overall, this represents an important step forward in bringing transparency to Mississippi law enforcement. Ideally, civil asset forfeiture should be abolished entirely, but under this law, reformers will have the data they need to make their case.