Mississippi officials will return property improperly seized under the state’s now-defunct civil asset forfeiture law.
The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics notified eight individuals in September they could retrieve their property, worth more than $100,000, because officials had seized the items after their authority to do so had expired.
Mississippi law previously allowed the state to take property suspected of being the proceeds of a crime if it was worth less than $20,000. In June 2018, lawmakers ended civil asset forfeiture through administrative action by allowing the law to sunset.
Current law requires Mississippi officials to obtain a search warrant issued by a judge before seizing property, and all forfeitures are to be posted on a publicly accessible website.
Undermining Government’s Credibility
Brett Kittredge, director of marketing and communications for the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, says Mississippi state law still allows government officials to seize assets without charges against the owner.
“In many cases, property is forfeited even if an individual has not been charged with a crime, much less convicted of a crime,” Kittredge said.
Kittredge says civil forfeiture undermines the legitimacy of government.
“The process of civil forfeiture challenges and jeopardizes the basic American principles of fairness and justice,” Kittredge said.
Feds Incentivize Forfeiture
The federal government has encouraged state and local officials to use civil asset forfeiture, says Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the Reason Foundation, by sharing the proceeds of forfeitures in federal cases with local authorities.
“The problem is the feds really sort of drive the train,” Moore said. “They incentivize local police departments to seize assets by sharing the gains with them, so it cuts across the whole country. Asset forfeiture is going on everywhere state legislatures haven’t rolled it back.”
Calls for More Reforms
Matthew Glans, a senior policy analyst for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News, says civil asset forfeiture corrupts law enforcement.
“Lax forfeiture rules give law enforcement officials an economic incentive to seize property, corrupting law enforcement agencies and penalizing innocent property owners,” Glans said. “Far too many states impose no penalties on law enforcement for wrongful seizures, and when property is deemed to have been taken illegally, taxpayers usually have to pay for the returned assets.”
The procedures for redress for individuals whose property is seized are limited, says Glans, and recovering the assets can require expensive litigation.
“In many states, property owners are often given very little opportunity to challenge the seizures,” said Glans. “When given the opportunity, the process is expensive for those whose property is seized.”
Recently, state legislatures have been instituting stricter requirements for property to be legally seized, says Glans.
“Mississippi’s efforts to end these abuses and return the seized property should be commended, and other states should follow its lead,” Glans said. “At a minimum, states should increase the standard of proof for seizure to require clear and convincing evidence of a crime, move the burden of proof to the government, and make the tracking of seized assets more transparent.”
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.