Mississippi became the latest state to tighten its civil forfeiture laws when Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill on Monday that will require warrants for police to seize property. Through civil forfeiture, law enforcement agencies do not need to file criminal charges, or even secure a criminal conviction, to permanently confiscate cash, cars and other forms of personal property.
Under the newly signed bill, HB 812, whenever an agency seizes property, it must obtain a seizure warrant from a circuit or county court within three business days of the seizure. Agencies that do not procure a warrant with that timeframe cannot forfeit the property and must return it to its owner. In addition, agencies now will have to request prosecutors file for forfeiture within 30 days of a seizure.
Most importantly, HB 812 implements new transparency requirements to track seizure and forfeiture activity. For the first time, Mississippi agencies will now have to record a description of the seized property, its estimated value, its final deposition, as well as if anyone attempted to contest the forfeiture. Those records will then be uploaded to a public, searchable website, which will be created and maintained by the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. Agencies that do not comply with the new reporting requirements will not receive state or federal grants.
“HB 812 will hopefully inform the public about how often law enforcement seizes and forfeits property,” Lee McGrath, Senior Legislative Counsel at the Institute for Justice (IJ) said in a statement.
“Equally important, the bill will produce data on which state legislators may rely to make additional reforms to a civil process that has come under widespread criticism, including from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas,” McGrath added.
Previous investigations paint a worrying picture. An extensive report by The Washington Post into a federal forfeiture program known as equitable sharing found that Mississippi law enforcement conducted nearly 400 cash seizures “without warrants or indictments.” Through that same federal program, Mississippi police and prosecutors collected $47 million in forfeiture revenue from the U.S. Department of Justice, according to a report by the Institute for Justice.
In January, Reason magazine uncovered “strange and petty seizures by police” in Mississippi, including cases where law enforcement confiscated car batteries, a comic book collection, garden hoses, a horse saddle, and even had a white couch forfeited to a sheriff’s office. (“The whereabouts of the couch remain unknown.”) Their investigation also revealed that the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics had seized almost $4 million in cash, just in 2015, with the median seizure just under $13,000.
Later that month, Mississippi received failing grades from IJ for its utter lack of transparency and accountability. Yet the new law does not require transparency for how police and prosecutors spend forfeiture funds.
“Mississippi’s failure to account for spending from forfeiture funds is particularly troubling,” said Jennifer McDonald, a IJ research analyst. “With forfeiture, law enforcement agencies can keep some or all of the proceeds from the property they take. This enables them to generate and spend funds outside the normal appropriations process, which undermines the legislature’s power of the purse. At a bare minimum, agencies should have to publicly report how they spend forfeiture proceeds.”
Most infamously, police in Richland (which has barely 7,000 residents) funded a “$4.1 million police station, a top-level training center and a fleet of black-and-white Dodge Charger police cars” entirely through civil forfeiture.
Reforming civil forfeiture was remarkably popular, both with citizens and legislators. A poll last year found 88 percent of registered voters oppose forfeiting property without a criminal conviction. In the legislature, HB 812 was approved by wide margins, passing the House of Representatives by 118 to 3 and the state Senate unanimously. Mississippi is now the third state this year and the 19th state since 2014 to have passed civil forfeiture reform.