Asset Forfeiture

Mississippi Finally Brings Some Transparency to Asset Forfeiture

Mississippi didn't track how much stuff police seized or how they spent the proceeds. Now it will do at least one of those.

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Province of British Columbia

Facing growing bipartisan scrutiny over its unchecked civil asset forfeiture program, Mississippi will now require police to report how much property they seize from citizens under a bill signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant Monday.

Under the new law, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics will maintain a website showing descriptions and values of seized property, which police department seized it, and any court petitions challenging the seizures. The law will also require police to obtain a seizure warrant within 72 hours.

Using asset forfeiture, police can seize cash, cars, and even houses if they suspect the property is connected to a crime. The owner does not have to be convicted, or in some cases even charged, with a crime to have his or her property forfeited by the state. For example, a Washington Post investigation found that since 9/11, Mississippi police conducted nearly 400 cash seizures "without search warrants or indictments."

Stories like that have led to growing momentum in statehouses across the U.S. to curtail police power to seize property through civil asset forfeiture, and Mississippi is now the 18th state, along with the District of Columbia, to pass some type of reform. New Mexico, North Carolina and Nebraska have barred police entirely from forfeiting property without a criminal conviction.

While police say asset forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug traffickers and other organized crime, civil liberties groups from across the political spectrum say the practice lacks due process protections for innocent property owners and creates perverse profit incentives that lead police to target everyday people just as often, if not more, than cartel members.

As Reason reported in January, the Magnolia State was one of the worst in the country when it came to asset forfeiture transparency. It neither reported nor even tracked how much state and local law enforcement seized from people, or how police spent those funds. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, gave the state an "F" grade in a report on forfeiture transparency earlier this year.

Documents and court orders obtained by Reason showed that, while the state raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars from large seizures, there were numerous cases of petty and bizarre seizures, such as one case where police seized a woman's furniture.

From January's investigation:

In total, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, working with local police departments, seized nearly $4 million in cash in 2015. Out of 154 seizures in 2015, the average cash value amounted to $66,733, and the median was $12,914. They seized cash amounts as low as $75 and as a high as $460,000. They seized trucks, cars, ATVs, riding lawnmowers, utility trailers, and 18-wheelers; an arsenal of assorted handguns, shotguns, and rifles; cell phones, cameras, laptops, tablets, turntables, and flatscreen TVs; boat motors, weed eaters, and power drills; and one comic book collection […]

"We're completely in the dark on how pervasive the practice really is," says Blake Feldman, an advocacy coordinator at the Mississippi ACLU. "Pretty much the default mindset is nobody should be overseeing any law enforcement. A big concern will be if the required tracking and reporting is going to be enforced, or if it will be a shallow gesture."

The new law will withhold grant funding from police departments that fail to comply with the reporting requirements. While this is undoubtedly an improvement over the previous asset forfeiture regime, it won't require police departments to report how they spend asset forfeiture funds—a development Institute for Justice research analyst Jennifer McDonald called "particularly troubling."

"With forfeiture, law enforcement agencies can keep some or all of the proceeds from the property they take," McDonald said in a statement. "This enables them to generate and spend funds outside the normal appropriations process, which undermines the legislature's power of the purse. At a bare minimum, agencies should have to publicly report how they spend forfeiture proceeds."

What does that lack of spending transparency look like in action? An investigation by Chicago Reader last year found the Chicago Police Department raked in $72 million since 2009 in civil forfeiture revenues, using it as an off-the-books revenue stream to fund surveillance activities for its narcotics unit.

And down in Mississippi, the tiny town of Richland paid for a $4.1 million police station and a new fleet of Dodge Charger police cruisers using asset forfeiture funds. A sign outside the station says the building was "tearfully donated by drug dealers."

"We would have liked to have seen the legislature pass substantive reforms to restore due process to asset forfeiture, but tracking and reporting the numbers is a big first step," Feldman says. "Mississippi often avoids issues by failing to collect the data. Not tracking expenditures is unfortunate, but unsurprising. In Mississippi, law enforcement regularly repeats phrases like 'community policing,' but evading spending oversight is antithetical to democratic policing. At a legislative hearing on asset forfeiture last summer, one sheriff testified that the legislature 'doesn't know what [his department] needs.' He said he was in the process of purchasing a drone with forfeited funds. It's terribly concerning that a government institution as resistant to accountability as law enforcement is allowed to acquire surveillance technology unilaterally.

Well, we may not know what else the Richland Police Department spends its forfeiture revenue on, but we'll soon find out who's paying for its new toys.

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  1. I can only imagine the dire consequences for PDs that fail to comply with this new law.

  2. What’s the point of even being a cop if you can’t steal property without due process, gosh!

    1. You still get to beat people up and not get into trouble.

      1. Don’t forget the raping prostitutes perk.

      2. *Sniffle* What… what about ruining people’s lives for doing something completely harmless to others? Can I still do that?

  3. “So if I deal drugs, I can afford a Hummer? Nice!”

  4. Deliberate and intractable state larceny is a guaranteed manifestation of any political ideology that entertains visions of moral superiority over vast swathes of the living.

    The lengths bureaucrats and legislators will frenetically bend reality into a moral dimension in order to justify state shadiness remains ever the consistent reason to rid governance of its political vices and altruism/pseudo-security philosophies.

    Dynamic, neutral, and minimal governance has neither the resources nor the will to violate its citizens.

    1. You want a state that has the resources to protect your property but not the resources to take it. I don’t know if that’s possible. And how do you get from here to there anyway?

      1. “You want a state that has the resources to protect your property but not the resources to take it.”

        Yes, at the moment it does both concurrently which is inefficient and immoral.

        Focus on logic-based security and the state will not have to steal to fund illegitimate and liberty-corroding activities veiled by pseudo-moralities.

        How is this so difficult?

      2. I would settle for a State that had the AUTHORITY to protect my propoerty, and without the authority to take it.

        I doubt that will happen any time soon, either.

  5. This is why I own nothing. How better to protect oneself?

  6. When police spokespeople assert that asset forfeiture is “a vital tool in the War on Drugs”, somebody really needs,to say “Then why did you use it in a way that makes in necessary to take it from you?”

  7. (7) The provisions of this section shall be required only at such time as the Legislature has appropriated funds for the bureau to create and maintain the required website.”

    Trust me, they’ll never find the money for the website, so all these fake reforms are just that. It’s written by the Rep. who covers
    the biggest seizure district in the land. It’s a sop to get Reason and Radley Balko off them while doing dick. Check back in a couple of years and you’ll see there is still no money for the site. Plenty of money to oppose gay marriage, but not 25k for a website.

  8. we’ll soon find out who’s paying for its new toys.

    No, we won’t. We certainly won’t. This law will be ignored like all rules that put a leash on these pieces of shit. Several years down the road, someone will notice that it is being ignored and sue. The pig faction will draw it out for years and years, using the very money they stole via taxation to fuck the people from whom they stole in the ass, without any lube.

    Eventually, after exhausting every possible legal avenue, they will lose that case and be ordered to provide the information they were legally required to all along. By that time, all the records will have mysteriously vanished due to a vague computer error of some sort. Because the precedent has been set for several years by then, they will continue to stonewall any attempts to make them follow the law they are sworn to uphold. Nothing will change. No one will be fired. No one will be punished. Sure as fuck no one will be brought to trial.

    You’ll all continue daily to bend over and grab your ankles for that dry ass-reaming from these heroes, who only want to put their lives on the line for you and go home safely to their families at night.

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