Criminal Justice

Mississippi Begins to Examine Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

Civil asset forfeiture reform has caught the attention of lawmakers in the Magnolia State.  This past legislative session, Mississippi passed a law that established the Civil Asset Forfeiture Task Force.  The law provides that the Task Force:

(a) review all civil asset forfeiture laws and make recommendations to the Legislature for amendments to Mississippi civil asset forfeiture laws that protect innocent property owners; (b) assure greater transparency; and (c) provide greater due process while ensuring that assets used or obtained through unlawful practices are removed from the possession of criminals.

The members of the Task Force were to include members of the legislature, individuals representing various law enforcement agencies, and the public defender’s office.

At its July 20, 2016 meeting, the Task Force heard testimony from John Malcolm, the Director of the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.  Malcolm called for an overhaul of Mississippi’s asset forfeiture laws, including ensuring transparency by making the agencies report the property they seize and ultimately obtain via forfeiture and reaffirming the principle that property owners should not have to disprove the government’s case against the property.  Instead, the government should bear the burden of proving that the owners of the property knew the property was being used in the commission of a crime.  Furthermore, he testified that Equitable Sharing with federal agencies ought to be eliminated, as it provides an incentive for states to bypass state law restrictions and reinforces profits motives, which serve as a strong base for forfeiture abuse.  In the same vein, he stated that law enforcement agencies should not be able to retain the forfeiture funds they generate; these proceeds obtained from forfeiture ought to be mandated to be deposited into the state’s general fund.  Redirecting the forfeiture funds from the seizing agency eliminates that agency’s motive to profit from those proceeds obtained via forfeiture.

On Wednesday, August 3, 2016, Task Force Chairman, State Representative Mark Baker, stated that his ultimate goal is to introduce a bill that would mandate that law enforcement agencies report all seizures and where they happened, the value of the property, whether the property was subsequently forfeited, and any criminal prosecution actions taken on the property owners.  Baker, the former prosecutor for the city of Brandon, Mississippi, hopes to build broad consensus on these reforms.

The ALEC model policy, The Reporting of Seizure and Forfeiture Act, directly addresses this part of civil asset forfeiture reform.  It specifically states what seizing agencies need to report, including the type of property seized, the market value of the property seized, whether the property was forfeited, and whether criminal charges were brought.  Mississippi could potentially follow the lead of other states, such as Nebraska and New Mexico, and address other civil asset forfeiture reforms found in the ALEC model Asset Forfeiture Process and Private Property Protection Act, including requiring a criminal conviction in order for the state to obtain a judgment of forfeiture for the seized property.  However, enacting robust reporting requirements is a good start to reforming Mississippi’s civil asset forfeiture laws.

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