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Property forfeiture bill to be discussed in legislature

Capitol Building in Jackson. Photo courtesy of Telesouth Communications Inc.

A bill (HB 1104)  to decide whether police will be able to seize property connected to criminal activity is making its way through the legislature.

Law enforcement officers gathered at the Capitol last week in support of the bill which would reinstate an administrative forfeiture law that expired last summer saying it is a tool which helps them stop the drug trade. The law has been on the books since the 1980s and Representative Mark Baker said changes were done to the law in 2017 to advance transparency and due process. At the time, the bill passed 118-3 the House and 51-1 in the Senate.

Baker said the current bill would not change the forfeiture process in Mississippi. However, others are worried about abuse of powers. Lora Hunter, General Counsel for the Department of Public Safety says that’s not the case.

“Opponents of the bill are going to put out the narrative that there is systemic abuse in the forfeiture system, that it’s policing for profit those are some of the arguments, but the truth is, where are the stories? Where is the police department that has done that through administrative forfeitures? That just hasn’t happened.”

Hunter added that administrative forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property that is specifically tied to a violation of the uniform controlled substance law. A common misconception is that law enforcement can seize property without it being connected to a crime. Hunter says it states that property must be linked to trafficking, possession, sale, or distribution of narcotics for an officer to seize the property.

If an individual wants to contest the seizure, they are able to do so within 30 days by going to court. Hunter gives a detailed explanation of the process saying the public is not being taken advantage of.

“Administrative forfeiture is really nothing more or less than a streamlined process to get to the same point. All of the due process protections, transparency, etc. were a part of the process and so I hear a lot of anecdotal claims with regard to that and we heard those during the 2016-17 hearings. We pulled every administrative forfeiture and we pulled every judicial forfeiture and we looked at them, everyone that was pending. When we looked at the specific instances, the allegations of abuse fell by the wayside… The truth of the matter is that drug dealers barter for drugs in a myriad of ways they’re merchants of death, they’re traders, barterers, dealers and it’s criminal commerce.”

Baker added that the current bill is identical to the section of the previous bill dealing with administrative forfeiture which was passed in 2017.

Aaron Rice Executive Director of the Mississippi Justice Institute says the officers are still able to do their jobs and seize property, but a judge must sign off.

“This does not affect the ability to disrupt the cartel or drug trafficking at all,” said Rice. “Police can still seize anything today that they could seize last July. The only thing that we are talking about in this debate is whether it should have to go to a judge for final adjudication in every case. That’s all we are talking about.”

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