October 11, 2018 10:36:03 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi police agencies have been seizing cash, guns and vehicles without legal authority for months after a state law changed and police didn't notice.
An Associated Press review of a Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics database shows more than 60 civil asset forfeitures with nearly $200,000 in property taken by state and local agencies under a law that lapsed on June 30.
That law allowed police to take $20,000 or less in property associated with illegal drugs, regardless of whether someone was convicted criminally, unless an owner fought the seizure in court within 30 days. Police agencies keep 80 percent of the money, with 20 percent going to a district attorney or the Bureau of Narcotics.
Now, Mississippi agencies must sue in court and get a judge to approve seizures, as they already were required to do with larger amounts.
Civil liberty and property rights groups have long raised alarms nationally about the dangers of police seizing property without sufficient legal safeguards. Supporters of Mississippi's change say the old administrative forfeiture law didn't provide enough protection against questionable seizures.
"The judicial forfeiture had safeguards built in, but with the administrative forfeiture, your stuff was basically guilty until proven innocent and you had to sue the state to get it back," said state Rep. Joel Bomgar, a Madison Republican who supported abolishing the old law.
A built-in repeal provision voided the old law on June 30. Such measures are routine in Mississippi laws, allowing periodic review by lawmakers. In this case, two bills that would have continued the administrative forfeiture law died in a House committee this spring.
But police kept on taking property after June 30. The Bureau of Narcotics database shows at least 15 agencies filed paperwork documenting administrative seizures. There could be many more. Jackson County's South Mississippi Metro Enforcement Team removed from the database documents relating to at least five forfeitures. Some other documents don't show clearly whether an agency sued to seize property.
Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director John Dowdy said he didn't know the law had expired until September, when a Rankin County prosecutor notified him.
"Honestly, we were unaware of the sunset provision," he said. "We thought that had been fixed in the legislative session."
On Sept. 10, the Mississippi Justice Institute, an arm of the conservative Mississippi Center for Public Policy, wrote to Dowdy pointing out the change. Dowdy said he had already heard about the change by then.
Dowdy said agencies that seized property could still sue, seeking a judicially-sanctioned forfeiture, if less than 30 days elapsed. In Harrison County, for example, officials filed suit to seize $939 from Danielle Laquay Smith on Sept. 26, exactly 30 days after seizure.
But that's too late for some seizures. Records show the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics offered to return more than $42,000 in money and guns in September. District attorneys on the Mississippi Gulf Coast say they're giving back property too.
"It sounds like I may be fixing to win something," said Jim Davis, a lawyer who represents Jeremy C. Simpkins Jr. of Waveland. In August, Simpkins became one of the few people to contest a seizure, filing papers demanding return of $2,152. He said the Hancock County Sheriff's Office "stole or illegally seized" the money, and denied claims that Simpkins or someone around him illegally possessed methamphetamine.
Dowdy said he's relying on the Mississippi Prosecutors Association to spread word of the change. The association's leader, John Herzog, said he's talked to some but not all district attorneys.
In northern Mississippi, District Attorney John Champion said, "I wasn't aware of that," when asked about the change. Police agencies in his five-county district, particularly in DeSoto County, have the majority of questionable seizures listed statewide.
Dowdy said he's already talking to lawmakers about reviving administrative forfeiture, a move that could be backed by prosecutors. District Attorney Tony Lawrence in Jackson, George and Greene counties wrote in an email that "the loss of the administrative forfeiture law will hamper our efforts to fight drug dealers and the poison they peddle in our communities."
But supporters of stricter controls on forfeiture are likely to push back. J. Robertson, who studies criminal justice issues for conservative group Empower Mississippi, said ending administrative forfeiture puts Mississippi "among the front-runners of having taken steps to protect property owners."
"Our hope is the state agencies are now aware of that so the reform is enacted going forward," Robertson said.
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