Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Shining a light on police seizures, civil forfeitures

Shining a light on police seizures, civil forfeitures


Mississippi has some of the strongest protections in the country for private property rights. But those protections are shockingly lax when it comes to a little-known police practice called “civil forfeiture.”

Unlike criminal forfeiture, which only allows the government to forfeit property after securing a criminal conviction, under civil forfeiture, property owners do not have to be convicted or even criminally charged to lose their property.

Once a property has been forfeited and auctioned, law enforcement can keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds if just one agency investigated the case. If multiple agencies were involved, then agencies can retain all forfeiture proceeds. This creates a worrisome conflict of interest and may incentivize police to use this practice for their own financial gain.

Even worse, Mississippi police and prosecutors are not required to track or report their seizure and forfeiture activity, which keeps the public in the dark.

To shine a light on abuses of government power, state Rep. Chris Brown has proposed House Bill 1410, the “Asset Forfeiture Transparency Act.”  By a vote of 112 to 5, the House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill late last month.

If enacted, the bill would require agencies to list all property seized under state or federal forfeiture laws and include a description of the seized property and its estimated value. If a property is ultimately forfeited to the government, agencies would have to disclose the amount of proceeds received from its sale. Crucially, HB 1410 would oblige agencies to list whether or not property owners were even charged with a crime as well as how the case was resolved (i.e. in acquittal, conviction, dropped charges or plea agreement). Closed forfeiture cases would also appear on a public, searchable website created and maintained by the Commissioner of Public Safety.

The lack of transparency and accountability for Mississippi’s asset forfeiture laws can cause a breakdown of trust between police officers and the citizens whose rights they are sworn to serve and protect. The little information that has become public about civil forfeiture in Mississippi is troubling.

In Richland, a town of 7,000 residents just south of Jackson, police built and paid for a $4.1 million police station entirely with civil forfeiture. Forfeiture funds also paid for “every patrol car in the Richland Police Department fleet,” as well as a “top-level training center,” Mississippi Watchdog reported. Of course, without proper disclosure requirements, there is no way of knowing how many of those individuals who had their property taken in Richland were even charged with a crime.

The Washington Post investigated one federal forfeiture program and found that since 9/11, there have been nearly 400 cash seizures made by Mississippi agencies “without search warrants or indictments.” Although federal forfeiture data is largely wanting, the U.S. Department of Justice does keep track of how much an agency has collected through federal forfeiture, unlike current state law. Between 2000 and 2013, Mississippi law enforcement altogether received more than $47 million in forfeiture proceeds from the Justice Department, according to a recent report by the Institute for Justice.

By passing HB 1410, Mississippi is poised to join a growing reform movement.