Civil asset forfeiture is a method by which law enforcement agencies seize money, guns, vehicles, property or anything of value that they believe has been involved in violation of Mississippi’s Uniform Controlled Substances law. Until last year, MS had administrative civil forfeiture. That was when the thing(s) seized had a value of under $20,000. The seizing entity provided the person from whom the property was seized what is called a “Notice of Intent to Forfeit Seized Property”. Once that Notice was served on the person or persons (the Claimant), the Claimant had 30 days to file a Petition to Contest the forfeiture. In the vast majority of cases, the seized property had a value far less than $20,000. Many administrative forfeitures consisted of the seizure of a few hundred dollars. As the burden was on the Claimant to contest the forfeiture, they had to pay the $160+ filing fee, and if they wanted to have any real shot of prevailing, hire an attorney to contest the matter. It was cost prohibitive. Many lawyers will take forfeiture cases on a contingency fee basis, and if the amount seized was, for example, $1,000, all an attorney could hope to recover would be some percentage, generally 25%-40% of $1,000. Few lawyers would be willing to take a civil case for the hopes of prevailing and getting a few hundred dollars for their time. If the lawyer took the case on an hourly basis, the Claimant would quickly be out far more than what was seized. The system was basically a way to take money from people, many not charged with a crime, and keep it with no real method of trying to get it returned. As most people who had property taken couldn’t afford to contest it, or it wasn’t worth the money to contest it, the seizing entity would do a “Declaration of Forfeiture” and the property was forfeited to the seizing agency without a court ever hearing a word regarding the seizure and disposition.
Baby steps to reform the system began in 2017, when the legislature passed a bill that the seizing entity obtain a seizure warrant from a County of Circuit Judge within 72 hours of seizing the property. But even that tiny step had exceptions. The 72 hours didn’t include holidays or weekends.
The first real attempt at reform was in 2018. The administrative forfeiture provision was allowed to sunset on June 30 of 2018, which was a surprise to many law enforcement agencies. From July 1, 2018, through today, if a law enforcement agency wished to seize property, even if was $10, the seizing agency was forced to file a complaint and have a County or Circuit judge rule on the matter. This at least took asset forfeiture out of the complete shadows and forced a Court to rule on every one. This also shifted the initial burden of the filing fee to the seizing entity. This has had the effect of far fewer seizure of $100 or a garden hose. Claimants still have the burden of either representing themselves or hiring an attorney, but there is at least some sunlight being shown on the process.
HB 1104 was introduced by Representative Mark Baker of Brandon to try and revive administrative forfeiture.
Forfeitures, while abused, do provide a tool for law enforcement. There is no doubt that when done properly, where the parties are fully represented, the seizing agency has done their investigation, and a public hearing in front of a Judge is held, most of the time the correct party prevails. But the very idea that a people’s property can be taken and little to no recourse is available to the person whose property is taken, is anathema to what this country was founded on. People would not stand for persons to be charged with a crime and incarcerated with no Court ever presiding over the matter or even knowing about it. People’s property should be afforded the same right. I hope Rep. Baker’s bill fails and administrative forfeiture continues to be dead.