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Mississippi public defender says state keeping funds might curb asset forfeiture

By   /   January 17, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

The state public defender in Mississippi has submitted a separate set of recommendations to the governor’s office on civil asset forfeiture reform that he hopes will curb the practice.

Andre de Gruy, who served on the state’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Task Force, said forfeited funds should go to state coffers rather than local law enforcement. The reason? The money is seized because state laws are broken, the Clarion Ledger reported.

Office of State Public Defender photo

DE GRUY: There is no justification for the “eat what you kill” philosophy in civil asset forfeiture.

What may appear on its face as a proposal for the state to lord over local authorities is actually anything but: If local law enforcement agencies don’t get to keep the spoils, contends de Gruy, they will be less incentivized to seize the funds in the first place.

“Regardless of whether or not there is sufficient evidence of abuse in the current system, there is no public policy justification for maintaining the ‘eat what you kill’ scheme,’” de Gruy told the Ledger. “The justification of forfeiture is to remove the financial incentives and cripple major criminal operations. Administrative forfeiture does not address these concerns and results in less due process for offenders and innocent owners in low-level crimes that should not be subject to forfeiture at all.”

The possible reforms that the task force recently sent to Gov. Phil Bryant for consideration in the 2017 legislative session focus largely on transparency, including requiring the building of a searchable forfeiture database website and providing seizure warrants to local police that require them to explain to a judge what was taken and why.

RELATED: Civil Asset Forfeiture Task Force working out final details on reform

Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice who testified at one of the task force’s hearings in July, told Watchdog.org that transparency was an important first step.

“A rigorous reporting system is essential. State lawmakers need to know how law enforcement uses the awesome power to seize and forfeit Mississippians’ property,” McGrath said. “The Legislature must provide a check against abuse of that power.  That cannot be done without extensive, reliable and audited information.”

Several states have reformed or are considering reforms to their civil asset forfeiture statutes, which allow law enforcement to seize cash and/or property if there is merely a suspicion they are connected to a crime. U.S. Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions avoided grilling on the subject during his confirmation hearing this week, but he has expressed his support of the practice in the past.

RELATED: AG nominee Sessions champions civil asset forfeiture, worrying reform advocates

Sessions spoke against reforming the laws at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last year. Although a bipartisan group of lawmakers spoke disdainfully of civil asset forfeiture, Sessions said police groups had told him it was a key law enforcement tool. Losing those funds “would be a huge detriment to law enforcement,” he said.

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Johnny Kampis is National Watchdog Reporter for Watchdog.org. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com, FoxNews.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A former semi-professional poker player, he is writing a book documenting the poker scene at the 2016 World Series of Poker, a decade after the peak of the poker boom. Johnny is also a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors.