TUPELO • A candidate for Mississippi attorney general wants to revive a now-lapsed state statute that allowed law enforcement to seize some private property without mandatory court oversight.
Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, has introduced legislation that would expand civil asset forfeiture, a procedure that allows law enforcement to take virtually any property that was allegedly used for or obtained through criminal activity.
Specifically, Baker wants to revive a procedure called administrative forfeiture, which expired last July.
Here’s how administrative forfeiture worked: Law enforcement could seize property allegedly involved in criminal activity and then notify the property owner, if the property was valued at $20,000 or less. The property owner then had 30 days to contest the seizure in court, or the property in question defaulted to law enforcement.
Since the practice expired last year, law enforcement now has to get a judge’s permission before it can seize that property.
Property valued at greater than $20,000 already required a court order before forfeiture could occur.
Gov. Phil Bryant has endorsed Baker’s bill, but its prospects are uncertain. If the bill doesn’t receive a committee vote by Tuesday, it will be dead for further consideration.
The proposed legislation, House Bill 1104, has been referred to the Judiciary A committee, which Baker chairs.
According to Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson, the state sheriffs’ association informed its members Friday morning that the bill won’t clear committee.
Association president Sheriff Steve Rushing confirmed to the Daily Journal that he doesn’t expect the bill to advance.
The sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ associations in Mississippi have lobbied on behalf of HB 1104. The law enforcement lobby has complained that without administrative forfeiture, the process of taking private property from alleged offenders can become cumbersome and clog up court dockets.
Civil liberties advocates of both libertarian, conservative and liberal stripes have voiced concerns that administrative forfeiture lacks sufficient oversight and want judicial oversight of all seizures.
Aaron Rice, director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, emphasized that many administrative seizures force people into a choice: take financial loss or contest the seizure action.
“The cost of the attorney fees and the filing fees can be more than the property itself,” Rice said. “So they are in an impossible position of trying to decide whether to spend more on litigation than their property is worth.”
Rice emphasized that asset forfeiture reforms in Mississippi have still left forfeiture in place as a tool.
“The state can still take property that’s connected to a crime through regular civil forfeiture and through criminal forfeiture,” Rice said. “They can still disrupt the cartels or drug traffickers. You can support law enforcement and still support constitutional rights.”
Baker is one of two Republicans to have announced a candidacy for the attorney general post, currently held by Democrat Jim Hood who will run for governor this year.
The other Republican in the race is Lynn Fitch, currently the state’s treasurer.
Criminal justice reform has been a priority for some state government leaders in recent years, though the scope and extent of such reforms remains controversial and divisive among lawmakers, particularly among Republican ranks.
The next attorney general could hold a position of influence to direct or shape future reform efforts, especially if that next attorney general is a Republican.
Baker’s bill makes his position clear on administrative forfeiture.
Fitch also supports the renewal of administrative forfeiture.
“Law enforcement says they need it, and she supports law enforcement,” a campaign spokesperson told the Daily Journal.
During a campaign announcement tour in January, Fitch told the Daily Journal she supported a number of criminal justice reform measures, including re-entry efforts and sentencing alternatives.
Cash, cars and weapons are among the items most frequently seized for forfeiture by law enforcement, according to a state database.
However, in one particularly notable case that has drawn attention, Richland police in 2017 seized a cache of goods that included a weed trimmer, power tools, a television, an air compressor and an air conditioner unit.
In that case, the court ruled that the air conditioner, some cash and a car should be returned to the property owner, but police were allowed to seize the other items.