Mississippi this week provides yet another solid chunk of evidence that American citizens, once it has been properly explained, massively, overwhelmingly oppose civil asset forfeiture by law enforcement and prosecutors.
Last week I noted how people polled in Florida and Utah overwhelming opposed the idea that police should be able to seize and keep assets and property of people simply suspected of crimes but not convicted or in some cases even charged.
A new poll released yesterday by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy produces very similar numbers. They find 88 percent of the 625 registered Mississippi voters they polled oppose asset forfeiture. Mason-Dixon Polling & Research handled to poll. Here was the question they asked:
Mississippi allows law enforcement to seize a person's cash and property if they suspect the property has been used in criminal activity. Under these laws, however, the police can keep the property even if the owner is never charged or convicted of a crime. In general, do you support or oppose allowing police to seize and permanently take away property from people who have not been convicted of a crime?
One can argue that the wording of the question is naturally going to lead to a negative response, but one cannot argue that the question is inaccurate. This is how civil asset forfeiture plays out in the real world. Law enforcement can seize cash found in cars during stops, for example, claiming they suspect that the money was part of a drug trafficking operation, and even if they are unable to produce any evidence of the underlying crime, attempt to keep the money. Because it's a civil process as opposed to a criminal process (sometimes prosecutors literally accuse the property itself of involvement in a crime, not a human being), the owners of the cash or property are not guaranteed a right to a lawyer and either have to pay for one, try to navigate a byzantine court process, or sadly too often, give up and walk away.
The Mississippi poll is also notable that even when broken down demographically, support for civil asset forfeiture never gets past 10 percent. Whether you break it down by age, race, political affiliation, sex—it doesn't matter. A huge majority oppose civil asset forfeiture.
Mississippi's asset forfeiture regulations have been given a grade of C- by the liberty-focused property-rights-protecting legal team of the Institute for Justice. On the bad side, the evidential threshold to seize property is low and law enforcement agencies may keep up to 80 percent of what they seize (thus creating a massive incentive to take property whenever possible). On the plus side, the burden of proof is on the government that the property is connected to a crime, even under civil forfeiture. In many states, the citizen is obligated to prove that his property is innocent in order to get it back.
How much property is forfeiture to law enforcement in Mississippi each year? We don't know. Mississippi does not have any requirement that law enforcement track and publicly report their revenue from forfeiture. Lawmakers are hoping to at least add some transparency to Mississippi's asset forfeiture system with HB 1410. The bill would create a searchable website where police would be required to report the details of all their forfeiture so the public would have a better sense of what was happening, including whether the suspect in a seizure case was ever charged with a crime. Read the bill's text here.
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