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Mississippi provides little transparency for civil asset forfeiture

By   /   July 22, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

TEARFULLY DONATED: The sign for Richland's $4.1 million police station, which was paid for entirely by civil forfeiture.

TEARFULLY DONATED: The sign for Richland’s $4.1 million police station, which was paid for entirely by civil forfeiture.

Trying to figure out the how much civil asset forfeiture is taking place in Mississippi isn’t easy. The state’s laws don’t require law enforcement agencies to keep records, and what few records are available don’t reveal the whole picture.

According to an extensive survey by Mississippi Watchdog of biennial financial audits of the state’s 82 counties either carried out or contracted by state auditor Stacey Pickering’s office, more than $36 million was collected in “fines and forfeitures” by county officials in the three years worth of reports available covering the years 2013 to 2015.

But there’s no way to tell how much of each was collected, when the seizures occurred, whether criminal action was associated with it and what was the final disposition of the property or cash.

RELATED: Poll shows Mississippians favor civil asset forfeiture reform

The story is much the same at the city level.

The auditor’s office performs biennial audits — both with in-house accountants and outside firms — of the finances of cities and towns. Many of those surveyed by Mississippi Watchdog had only a “fines” entry listed under revenues. Here are some of the results of a survey of the most recent data available from some of the state’s larger cities:

  • Jackson had $3.1 million in fines and forfeitures in 2014.
  • Biloxi received $370,100 in seized property in 2014.
  • Southaven took in $2.4 million in fines listed on its revenues in 2014, but no entry for forfeitures was listed
  • Gulfport had $1.48 million in fines and forfeitures in 2015.
  • Oxford had $814,362 in fines and forfeitures in 2014.
  • Meridian had $859.667 in fines and forfeitures in 2014.
  • Tupelo had more than $1.3 million worth of seizures and fines in 2014.
  • Clinton expects to land $396,000 in fines and forfeitures this budget year after receiving 381,000 last year.

Property owners are given 30 days to file an answer requesting the return of their seized property, which is done through a civil proceeding. Under state law, if a property owner doesn’t file a motion, the court hears evidence on whether the property is subject to forfeiture. Also, while a criminal conviction in Mississippi requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, civil asset forfeiture requires only a preponderance of evidence, a lower standard.

The original version of a measure considered by the legislature in the most recent session, House Bill 1410, would have required every law enforcement agency to keep accurate records of the seized assets and submit annually to the Department of Public Safety. Departments would have been responsible for posting them for public inspection on a website it was supposed to build and maintain.

Related: Libertarians, law enforcement debate civil asset forfeiture in Mississippi

Instead, the bill was watered down to simply create a task force, and Gov. Phil Bryant signed it into law.

The report from the Civil Asset Forfeiture Task Force, which has met twice and will likely meet again in the coming weeks, is due to the governor in December. Information from the state’s law enforcement agencies is due to the task force by Aug. 15.

The last time anyone in state government took a serious look at the civil asset forfeiture system was in 1991, when the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review said in a report that “laws governing the distribution of forfeited assets are not uniform and allow prosecutors to choose the provision most likely to result in a favorable distribution of assets.”

Contact Steve Wilson at [email protected]. Get regular updates on Mississippi through our Facebook or Twitter accounts.

This story was changed to reflect the Civil Asset Forfeiture Task Force’s deadline for its final report due to the governor

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Steve Wilson is the Mississippi reporter for Watchdog.org. Beginning his career as a sports writer, he has worked for the Mobile Press-Register (Ala.), the LaGrange Daily News (Ga.), Highlands Today (Fla.),McComb Enterprise-Journal (Miss.), the Biloxi Sun Herald(Miss.) and the Vicksburg Post (Miss.) Steve's work has appeared on Fox News, the Huffington Post and the Daily Signal. His bachelor's degree is in journalism with a minor in political science from the University of Alabama. Steve is also a member of the Mississippi Press Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He served four-plus years in the United States Coast Guard after his high school graduation and is a native of Mobile, Ala.