The new law, authored by state Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, brings several changes to the state’s civil asset forfeiture system. Those include:
- Guidelines for law enforcement agencies to report to the state the location of each forfeiture, any criminal prosecution actions taken on the property owners, the value of the property and its disposition.
- The construction and maintenance of a searchable website by the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, subject to the provision of funds by the Legislature.
- 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 inform the judge on what was taken and why it was seized, and explain to the judge the probable cause to justify the seizure. If the judge doesn’t issue a seizure warrant, the property would be returned.
- A requirement that the local district attorney or the MBN prosecute all forfeitures, which would eliminate outside counsel from being hired by law enforcement agencies.
Institute for Justice legislative counsel Lee McGrath told Mississippi Watchdog that the new law is a solid first step for civil asset forfeiture reform in the state. McGrath testified before the Civil Asset Forfeiture Task Force led by Baker last year as it gathered information and issued recommendations that later became H.B. 812.
“I’ve always had a preference to start with a reporting bill because that’s the only way that real facts get in front of state legislators,” McGrath said. “It’s a solid first step because it will produce real facts that legislators can use in the future to make substantive policy changes. The good news about this bill is that facts will prevail.”
According to the liberty-oriented Institute for Justice, Mississippi is now the 18th state to pass some kind of reform of its forfeiture system.
Even without H.B. 812, changes are already afoot in the state’s civil asset forfeiture system.
J. Scott Gilbert, a former federal prosecutor who handles civil asset forfeiture cases for Jackson law firm Watkins and Eager, told Mississippi Watchdog that forfeiture complaints with little or no specificity on the circumstances aren’t likely to be accepted by the courts after a recent decision this year by the Mississippi Court of Appeals that upheld the dismissal of a forfeiture plea.
Gilbert trained federal agents during his time as an assistant U.S. attorney on forfeiture procedures and has successfully litigated civil asset forfeiture cases in Delaware, Mississippi and Texas. He also testified before the Civil Asset Forfeiture Task Force.
“For years, judicial complaints for forfeiture filed in state court have not included any real information related to the who, what, when, where and why of the conduct alleged to justify the forfeiture,” Gilbert said. “Assuming the Mississippi Supreme Court upholds that decision, I think we will see civil forfeiture complaints in state court begin to contain more substantive information about the underlying events.
“I do not expect this to have any effect on the number of judicial forfeiture cases brought by the state. It will only result in more factually comprehensive pleadings.”
Under current law, law enforcement agencies are not required to keep records on civil asset forfeiture. To seize property, they must prove only that it’s linked to a crime and use the proceeds to supplement their budgets, even if a conviction of the property owner isn’t obtained. Property owners have to prove in a civil court that their property was not involved with a crime.