Forfeiture reform

As liberals howl that Republican states have become redoubts of right-wing radicalism, it’s worth highlighting a civil forfeiture reform backed by the ACLU that Mississippi GOP Gov. Phil Bryant signed last week with bipartisan legislative support.

Amid a broader push to rationalize criminal justice, many states are reviewing their civil forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement agencies to seize property they suspect to be related to a crime without actually having to obtain a conviction or even submit charges. Police and prosecutors can auction off the property and keep the proceeds to pad their budgets.

If the defendant is later found innocent, it can take years to repossess the confiscated property. Since the legal expenses may exceed the property’s value, many don’t bother trying. Perverse incentives also create a huge potential for abuse. Prosecutors might agree to reduce charges if defendants don’t contest their forfeited property. Police could seize items with high resale values and then conjure a criminal connection. In 2015 the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics snatched ATVs, flat-screen TVs, boat motors, 18-wheelers, tablets and even power drills.

Like many states, Mississippi required little accountability by law enforcement. In one case, a woman’s furniture was seized on suspicion that the items were purchased by her boyfriend with drug proceeds. After the charges were dismissed, most of the furniture save a couch were returned. What happened to the couch remains a mystery.

Mississippi’s reforms, which were pushed by the Institute for Justice and had nearly unanimous support in the Legislature, would curb the most egregious abuses. Law enforcers would have to obtain a seizure warrant within 72 hours and prosecute within 30 days, so they couldn’t take property while trying to formulate a case. Agencies would also be required to publish a description of the seized property along with its value and petitions contesting the forfeiture to an online public database.

Although agencies won’t have to account for how they spend the forfeiture windfall, the public will finally be able to police misconduct by law enforcement in criminal raids. That’s something even liberals can cheer. (Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal.)

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