Analysts at the nonpartisan Institute for Justice (IJ) have given the State of Mississippi’s civil asset forfeiture laws a grade of C-. The authors said state statutes giving law enforcement officials significant financial incentives to seize property is the primary reason for the low grade. Civil asset forfeiture, also known as civil judicial forfeiture, is a controversial legal process through which law enforcement agencies take personal assets from individuals or groups merely suspected of a crime or illegal activity.
The standards of proof required for seizure differ from state to state. In Mississippi, the government is typically required to demonstrate, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the property to be seized was related to a crime and subject to forfeiture. Unlike many other states, where owners are required to prove their own innocence to win back seized property, Mississippi does not place the burden of disproving a claim on property owners.
A new proposal to reform civil asset forfeiture is now being considered in Mississippi that would require a criminal conviction for forfeiture of property; require law enforcement to provide an itemized receipt of seized property; and would grant property owners an improved opportunity to dispute seizures.
Proponents of forfeiture argue it allows law enforcement agencies to use seized assets toward their enforcement efforts, transforming property illicitly gained by criminals into resources to be used for public benefit. Critics of the process note it gives law enforcement agencies economic incentives to seize property, corrupting them and penalizing innocent property owners. Civil forfeiture laws in Mississippi allow law enforcement agencies to keep 80 percent of the proceeds from forfeiture and up to 100 percent if more than one agency is involved. This gives agencies a strong incentive to seize property.
The Institute for Justice cites the Hattiesburg Police Department as an example of overreach. Between 2004 and 2010, the Hattiesburg Police Department received $1.4 million from its civil asset forfeiture program. According to the IJ report, Hattiesburg City Council President Kim Bradley admitted, “Forfeiture funds are a tremendous help, especially with the recent state budget cuts.”
Mississippi Watchdog.org reported in 2015 Richland, Mississippi, a town of just 7,000 people, constructed a new $4.1 million law enforcement training facility, which was funded entirely by forfeiture proceeds seized by police in Richland. The building even has a sign in its window that boasts, “Richland Police Station tearfully donated by drug dealers.”
One glaring problem with Mississippi’s civil asset forfeiture program is a lack of transparency. Mississippi law enforcement agencies are not required to track or report to the public their forfeitures or expenditures from forfeiture funds. This makes researching potential forfeiture abuse difficult; groups seeking data on seizures often face a drawn-out process to acquire information that ought to be easily accessible.
Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, advocates eliminating forfeitures altogether except in cases of maritime and customs law. He also offers five recommendations for states not willing to halt all forfeitures: place seized revenues in neutral funds, increase the standard of proof for seizure to require “clear and convincing evidence” of a crime, move the burden of proof to the government, make the tracking of seized assets more transparent, and eliminate “equitable sharing” arrangements, which allow law enforcement agencies to evade state restrictions on the use of forfeited funds.
Equitable sharing is an agreement between state and federal agencies to split proceeds from seizures. When equitable sharing is utilized, the lower federal standard is used, rather than the local state standard. According to IJ, between 2000 and 2013, Mississippi gained $3.4 million annually in equitable sharing proceeds from the Department of Justice, for a total of more than $47 million. Mississippi law enforcement agencies received almost $3 million in equitable sharing proceeds from the Treasury Department between 2000 and 2013.
Assets should be seized only for criminal reasons, and law enforcement should not have incentives to seize any more property than is necessary and justified.
The following documents provide additional information about civil asset forfeiture.
Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Marian Williams, Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Scott Bullock argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” they write.
Civil Asset Forfeiture, Equitable Sharing, and Policing for Profit in the United States
Jefferson E. Holcomb and Marian R. Williams, professors in the department of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University, and Tomislav V. Kovandzic, a professor in the University of Texas–Dallas School of Economic, Political, and Policy Studies, identify the effects of civil asset forfeiture reform on law enforcement activities. They write, “There is substantial anecdotal evidence that law enforcement [agencies] utilize a variety of tactics to generate the greatest revenue from their forfeiture operations,” a hypothesis their analysis of U.S. Department of Justice statistics confirms.
Seize First, Question Later: The IRS and Civil Forfeiture
Institute for Justice researcher Dick M. Carpenter II and attorney Larry Salzman examine the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws by the Internal Revenue Service. “Federal civil forfeiture laws give the Internal Revenue Service the power to clean out bank accounts without charging their owners with any crime,” they write.
Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know
This Heritage Foundation Factsheet outlines several important things people should know about civil asset forfeiture.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Goes Mainstream
Jordan Richardson of The Heritage Foundation discusses how the growing number of civil asset forfeiture abuses has drawn the attention of news media and suggests the increased attention may lead to real reform.
The Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket
A. Barton Hinkle of the Reason Foundation examines the growing problems created by civil asset forfeiture and argues for repeal of such laws.
Inequitable Justice: How Federal ‘Equitable Sharing’ Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain
The Institute for Justice examines the federal law enforcement practice known as equitable sharing, which enables and indeed encourages state and local police and prosecutors to circumvent the civil forfeiture laws of their states for financial gain.
Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Budget & Tax News at http://news.heartland.org/fiscal, The Heartland Institute’s website at http://heartland.org, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at www.policybot.org.
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