By Blake Feldman, Criminal Justice Advocacy Coordinator

The ACLU of Mississippi advocated for several criminal justice reforms this legislative session, and it is a shame most of those bills will not be signed into law. Nonetheless, HB 1410, which creates a task force to recommend reforms to civil asset forfeiture, has been sent to Governor Bryant’s desk.

According to a recent national poll, three out of four people have never heard of “civil asset forfeiture” – the procedure which allows law enforcement officers to seize cash and property from someone suspected of a crime. Most of the people polled believed that property could only be seized if someone was convicted or at least charged with a crime, but in Mississippi, law enforcement can seize your money or property without even charging you with a crime.

While a criminal conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, under Mississippi law a mere preponderance of the evidence that the property is connected to a crime is sufficient for forfeiture (Miss. Code Ann. § 41-29-179(2)). Across the country, states are beginning to address the problematic trend of “policing-for-profit.” Within the last two years, six states have reformed their forfeiture laws to require a criminal conviction. The most recent state to enact reform was Nebraska. Last week, the governor there signed into law LB 1106, which not only limited the authority to seize assets to instances when a defendant is convicted of certain crimes, but it also established reporting requirements. It’s time for Mississippi to do the same.

In Mississippi, a law enforcement agency working alone is permitted to retain 80% of the forfeiture proceeds, and law enforcement agencies may retain 100% of proceeds when multiple agencies collaborate. (Miss. Code Ann. § 41-29-181(2)). There being a perverse incentive for law enforcement to generate revenue rather than keep the community safe is troubling enough, but the issue is further compounded by the lack of transparency.

In Mississippi, agencies are not required to report what is seized, how much money is seized, from whom assets are seized, or how the agency spends the forfeiture proceeds. Thus, even though the $4.1 million police station, a law enforcement training facility, and several police vehicles in Richland, MS were fully funded by the small town police department’s forfeiture proceeds, and a sign in the window states that the building was “tearfully donated by drug dealers,” there is no way of knowing how many people who were never convicted of a crime – much less, charged with a crime – forcefully had their property taken to fund the government.

The federal government has cooperated with local and state agencies through the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program, through which agencies in the state work with federal agencies and receive millions of dollars from assets and cash seized every year. During the 2014 fiscal year, seven local law enforcement agencies received between $50,000 and $100,000 from the equitable sharing program.[1] Five agencies received more than $100,000, with Gulfport receiving the most -- $651,102.[2]

The task force should consider requiring agencies be more transparent with forfeiture practices and providing more due process protections so that innocent Mississippi residents and people visiting our state are not subjected to for-profit policing. Without transparency, there is no accountability and a gulf of mistrust between law enforcement and the community persists.

[1] Biloxi Police Department: $71,678

City of Tupelo Police Department: $51,787

Desoto County Sheriff’s Department – Special Investigation Division: $53,019

Hattiesburg Police Department: $94,851

Hinds County Sheriff’s Department: $85,608

Marshall County Sheriff’s Department: $51,787

Pearl Police Department: $78,981

[2] Gulfport Police Department: $651,102

Harrison County Sheriff’s Office: $325, 875

Jones County Sheriff’s Department: $399,588

Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics: $139,273

North Mississippi Narcotics Unity: $252, 608