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Former official: Mississippi civil asset forfeiture system lacks transparency

By   /   March 10, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

A former Mississippi circuit clerk says that transparency is lacking in the Magnolia State’s civil asset forfeiture system.

Angie McGinnis, who was the circuit clerk for Oktibbeha County for 16 years and retired in 2011, told Mississippi Watchdog that there is no accountability on forfeited funds and property and no way for an auditor to track the property and its disposition through court records.

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MONEY ON TRIAL: An analysis of electronic court records showed that a lot of Mississippi court cases involve the State v. a pile of cash.

Law enforcement agencies are not legally required to keep records of forfeitures, something that would change under a bill awaiting Gov. Phil Bryant’s signature. It would require law enforcement agencies to keep records of their forfeitures and submit them to the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, which would build a website to track all forfeitures.

But the legislation wouldn’t change any of the procedural elements of the forfeiture process, and also wouldn’t guarantee that the Legislature will appropriate the money necessary to build and maintain the database.

“This will keep the honest officers out there honest about inventorying the stuff and giving that list to the district attorney for forfeiture of those items,” McGinnis said. “It’s more a procedural bill for the agencies than anything. In my experience, you’re going to have to provide some funds for a venture like this, because money doesn’t just magically appear.”

According to Mississippi law, the only requirement for a law enforcement agency to seize property is to connect property to a crime, even if there is no conviction on the owner. Those whose property is seized have to prove in a civil court that their property was not involved with a crime.

RELATED: Mississippi Senate passes civil asset forfeiture reform

A Mississippi circuit clerk keeps court records, tracks money from fines and court costs, and maintains the voter rolls as registrar, among other duties.

In cases of civil asset forfeiture, the paper trail is scant.

“There’d be two sheets of paper, a petition (by the district attorney) for forfeiture and there may or may not be an order forfeiting it,” McGinnis said. “That’s it. That’s really not much to go on in those particular cases.”

She noticed a trend as she maintained the Oktibbeha County Circuit Court docket. Starting in the mid-1990s, there would be many cases of the state of Mississippi vs. a dollar amount. Or a car, down to the year, make and model, she said.

A recent analysis by Mississippi Watchdog of electronic court records shows that little has changed.

Screenshot from the Mississippi Electronic Courts site

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.

While a criminal conviction in Mississippi requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, civil asset forfeiture requires only a preponderance of evidence, a lower standard.

Screenshot from the Mississippi Electronic Courts site

The bill awaiting Bryant’s signature would also establish:

  • A new warrant system that would require a county or circuit judge to issue a civil seizure warrant within 72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays. The law enforcement agency would have to tell the judge what was taken and why it was seized, and explain to the judge the probable cause to justify the seizure. If the judge didn’t issue a seizure warrant, the property would be returned.
  • A requirement that the local district attorney or the Bureau of Narcotics prosecute all forfeitures, which would eliminate outside counsel from being hired by law enforcement agencies.

Steve Wilson reports for Mississippi Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected] and on Twitter.

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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.