In February 2017, Ashley Tami Renee Phillips was stopped at Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport in Jackson, Mississippi by a Transport Security Administration officer. The TSA had discovered Phillips was carrying $30,000 in cash in her checked luggage. He seized the cash.
Law enforcement attempted to take her cash using civil asset forfeiture. This is the procedure where police may take an individual’s money or property if they suspect it is involved in a crime. In Phillips’ case, the Jackson Airport Police Department brought in their drug dog to test the cash. When the dog detected narcotics on the money, the police had found their justification to take the cash. This is despite a study demonstrating that more than 75 percent of currency in the U.S. has cocaine residue on it.
The Jackson Airport PD claimed that Phillips had attempted to hide the money, claiming it was “concealed in several different items of clothing in the checked luggage.” Phillips hired a lawyer to fight the seizure. More than 18 months after the seizure, in October 2018, prosecutors settled with Phillips, returning $25,000 of her money.
For most people, however, contesting a seizure is prohibitively expensive once you take into account the cost of a lawyer and court filing fees. In the 18 months from July 2017 through to December 2018, Mississippi law enforcement departments reported 315 seizures averaging $7,490 per seizure. Details of these seizures are contained in Mississippi’s new civil asset forfeiture database.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions championed civil asset forfeiture as a means of fighting drug cartels. It is, he said, “a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed.” Despite this, only 137 of Mississippi’s civil forfeitures were drug-related.
Additional details can be hard to find in the database. The circumstances that led to the seizure are outlined in fewer than 30 percent of seizures. It is hard to tell, therefore, how many of the 137 seizures were, in fact, drug-related. For example, even though she was not charged with a crime, not linked to the illegal drug trade, and her money was eventually returned, Phillips would have been listed as having a drug-related seizure.
Cash seizures accounted for 47 percent of forfeitures in the state, while vehicles accounted for 17 percent.
This insight into the state of civil asset forfeiture in Mississippi comes at a time of change in the state. Last summer, the law allowing what are known as “administrative forfeitures” lapsed. Administrative forfeiture was used for seizures totaling less than $20,000 and was favored by law enforcement as they did not have to file paperwork and there were few safeguards to protect innocent owners.
Last year, I reported on how law enforcement agencies were still using administrative forfeiture three months after the law had lapsed. The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics said at the time they had been unaware of the change in the law and later returned cash and property worked $42,000.
While there have been some large busts in Mississippi—notably a bust of Rankin County vape shops that were selling synthetic cannabinoids which led to over $600,000 of seizures—for the most part, civil asset forfeiture in Mississippi has been used to for seizures of far lesser value. If you remove the Rankin County cannabinoid seizures from the tally, the average value of civil asset forfeitures in the state is $5,422.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.