For more than three months, police departments in Mississippi have seized property from individuals with no legal authority after a forfeiture law quietly lapsed. Law enforcement agencies say they did not notice the lapse.
The law in question had allowed police agencies to seize cash or property suspected of being involved with illicit drugs unless the owner challenged it in court within 30 days of the seizure. This procedure is called “administrative forfeiture” and was used for seizures which totaled less than $20,000. For larger sums, “judicial forfeiture” was used. Judicial forfeiture requires law enforcement agencies to sue in court in order to have a judge sanction the forfeiture. The burden of proof for judicial forfeitures is also higher than for administrative forfeitures.
State Rep. Joel Bomgar (R–Madison) outlined the differences between the two laws: “The judicial forfeiture had safeguards built in, but with the administrative forfeiture, your stuff was basically guilty until proven innocent, and you had to sue the state to get it back.”
Both judicial and administrative forfeiture are types of civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process where law enforcement can take an individual’s property even without that person being convicted of or even charged with a crime. All that is required is a suspicion that the property was in some way involved in criminal activity.
In Mississippi, law enforcement agencies retain 80 percent of the proceeds from the forfeiture if only one agency was involved in the seizure. In cases where two or more agencies were involved, law enforcement keeps 100 percent of the proceeds. This has led to critics across the political spectrum saying that police are incentivized to carry out civil asset forfeitures since these funds directly benefit them.
The law which allowed administrative forfeitures contained a sunset clause which came into effect on June 30. Sunset clauses are common in Mississippi laws. They are designed to ensure laws are periodically reviewed by the state legislature. However, the bills which would have allowed administrative seizures to continue died in committee earlier this year.
Unaware of this, law enforcement agencies across the state continued seizing property using the lapsed law. At least 15 agencies have filed 60 civil forfeitures under the law since June 30, amounting to at least $200,000 in property. Since there is no requirement to track civil forfeitures in Mississippi, the amount may be considerably higher.
“Honestly, we were unaware of the sunset provision,” said John Dowdy, director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. “We thought that had been fixed in the legislative session.”
The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics has said they will now return cash and weapons worth $42,000. District Attorneys on the Gulf Coast have also announced they will also return seized property.
Dowdy is working with lawmakers in the hopes of bringing back administrative forfeiture. “The loss of the administrative forfeiture law will hamper our efforts to fight drug dealers and the poison they peddle in our communities,” wrote District Attorney Tony Lawrence.
However, J. Robertson of the conservative nonprofit Empower Mississippi argues that the lapsing of the administrative forfeiture law places the state “among the front-runners of having taken steps to protect property owners.”
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.