Lawmakers reject plan to reinstate law allowing no-judge seizures

Published 9:05 pm Tuesday, February 5, 2019

(AP) — Mississippi lawmakers have rejected plans to allow police to resume seizing cash, guns and vehicles without going before a judge, agreeing with civil liberties advocates that the practice was unjust.

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Mark Baker said his committee won’t consider House Bill 1104, which would have reinstated a previous law. That means it dies at a Tuesday deadline for legislation to advance out of committee. The Brandon Republican, who’s running for attorney general, said House leaders decided not to move forward with the proposal.

Under a law that was in effect until June 30, police agencies could file for administrative forfeiture of property worth less than $20,000 that was associated with illegal drugs. If an owner didn’t contest the forfeiture within 30 days in court, the property was seized by the agency. Police agencies kept 80 percent, with 20 percent going to a district attorney or the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.

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Lawmakers allowed that law to lapse last year, although many police agencies didn’t notice. An Associated Press review found more than 60 forfeitures of property, valued at nearly $200,000, in a period that lasted more than two months after the law ended but before police recognized the change. A number of agencies had to offer seized property back to its owners.

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.

“It was a gross infringement on innocent until proven guilty and due process. Administrative forfeiture cuts the judge and the courts out,” said Rep. Joel Bomgar, a Madison Republican who described himself as “thrilled” at the bill’s demise.

Police and Gov. Phil Bryant had supported restoring the law, saying it was a valuable way to fight drug crime.

“There are times when it was abused and as a result, come back to haunt all of law enforcement for the actions of a few,” said Ken Winter, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police.

The demise of the proposal will not mean that people have to be convicted of a crime to have their property seized. It does mean that Mississippi agencies must sue in state court in a civil proceeding and get a judge to approve a seizure, as they have long been required to do for property worth more than $20,000.

“It’s a few more steps, but it’s not the end of the world,” Winter said.