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.
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.
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.
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.
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.