The COVID-19 pandemic has put a crimp on the nation’s economy and even reduced the number of civil asset forfeiture cases in Mississippi as well.
The number of civil asset forfeiture cases from March 1 to July 10 was reduced by more than 41 percent compared to the same time last year, according to an examination of the state’s civil asset forfeiture database.
From March 1 to July 10 of this year, there were 112 entries compared with the same time last year, when there were 191 entries.
Under current law, law enforcement agencies simply are required to connect property to a crime to seize it and can use the proceeds from it once it is forfeited to them to supplement their budgets. Property owners must prove in a civil court their property was not involved with or the proceeds of a crime, which usually is drug related.
The database went online in 2018 after the Legislature passed House Bill 812, which mandated the creation of a reporting website by that date. This bill also mandated a new warrant system that requires a county or circuit judge to issue a civil seizure warrant within 72 hours of the property being taken, excluding weekends and holidays.
The seizing agency would have to inform the judge about the property and the conditions under which it was seized before the judge will issue the warrant. If the judge doesn’t issue a seizure warrant, the property will have to be returned.
The average seizure reported in the first 18 months (from July 2018 to December 2019) the website was online was $7,490, which increased to $7,952 when the next 18 months were examined.
Seizures of $100,000 or more represented only 2.1 of all seizures, but the total amount seized represented 47 percent of all seizures.
While the database has the date, type and value of the seized property, law enforcement agencies aren’t required to submit additional paperwork, such as incident reports, which would reveal if any charges were filed against the property owner.
Law enforcement agencies also aren’t required to add data on the amount or what type of drugs were in the possession of those who property was subject to forfeiture.
A few law enforcement agencies — such as the Jackson Police Department, North Mississippi Narcotics Unit and sheriff’s departments from Hinds and DeSoto counties — put this information online in addition to what’s legally required. Most don’t include this information in their entries and a records request is required to obtain that information.
The way civil asset forfeiture works is law enforcement officers can seize property that they can prove is connected to a crime.
Then either attorneys from Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics or the local district attorney file what is known as a notice of intent to forfeit in civil court. Before the passage of HB 812, law enforcement agencies were free to hire outside counsel to pursue civil asset forfeiture claims against property owners in court. One example of this was in 2016 by the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department after a roadside seizure of $1 million.
A scan of the online court case database shows these cases are listed as the state of Mississippi vs. the property.
A judge in a civil court, with a lower burden of proof than a criminal proceeding, can rule in favor of the seizing agency if the property owner doesn’t hire an attorney and file to contest the forfeiture.
Law enforcement agencies can retain 80 percent of the proceeds from any seizure if only one agency was investigating and 100 percent of their share if more than one agency was involved and the property’s proceeds were divided among the agencies.
The rest goes to either the MBN or the local district attorney who filed the civil asset forfeiture complaint in court on behalf of the law enforcement agency.