Mississippi police took property without legal authority

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.

Posted: Oct 10, 2018 9:42 AM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — 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, twobills 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.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 319115

Reported Deaths: 7353
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto22246264
Hinds20612421
Harrison18342316
Rankin13855282
Jackson13666248
Madison10213224
Lee10050176
Jones8452167
Forrest7810153
Lauderdale7253242
Lowndes6488149
Lamar632288
Lafayette6295120
Washington5412136
Bolivar4833133
Panola4659110
Oktibbeha465898
Pearl River4591146
Marshall4571105
Warren4436121
Pontotoc424573
Union415576
Monroe4154135
Neshoba4059179
Lincoln4007111
Hancock385187
Leflore3514125
Tate342386
Sunflower339391
Pike3366110
Alcorn323272
Scott319274
Yazoo313971
Adams304785
Itawamba304777
Copiah299666
Coahoma298283
Simpson297889
Tippah291168
Prentiss283361
Leake271674
Marion271280
Covington266683
Wayne264442
Grenada264087
George251851
Newton248563
Tishomingo230867
Winston229881
Jasper222048
Attala214973
Chickasaw210459
Holmes190374
Clay187454
Stone187233
Tallahatchie179941
Clarke178980
Calhoun173732
Yalobusha167740
Smith164034
Walthall135147
Greene131633
Lawrence131024
Montgomery128643
Noxubee127934
Perry126638
Amite125942
Carroll122330
Webster115032
Tunica107927
Jefferson Davis107633
Claiborne102930
Benton102225
Humphreys97533
Kemper96628
Franklin84923
Quitman81816
Choctaw79018
Wilkinson69332
Jefferson66228
Sharkey50817
Issaquena1696
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 547323

Reported Deaths: 11266
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson808021563
Mobile41925826
Madison35600522
Tuscaloosa26136458
Shelby25554254
Montgomery25067610
Baldwin21774313
Lee16234175
Calhoun14692325
Morgan14614285
Etowah14132361
Marshall12443230
Houston10748287
Elmore10295212
Limestone10180157
St. Clair10146250
Cullman9921200
Lauderdale9582248
DeKalb8955189
Talladega8441184
Walker7318279
Autauga7215113
Blount6925139
Jackson6900113
Colbert6394139
Coffee5616126
Dale4928114
Russell454441
Chilton4461116
Franklin430683
Covington4263122
Tallapoosa4117154
Escambia400280
Chambers3715123
Dallas3604156
Clarke352861
Marion3231106
Pike313978
Lawrence3121100
Winston283372
Bibb267364
Geneva256981
Marengo250565
Pickens236562
Barbour234559
Hale226578
Butler223371
Fayette217162
Henry193843
Cherokee187245
Randolph186844
Monroe179141
Washington170339
Macon163051
Clay159559
Crenshaw155057
Cleburne152543
Lamar145837
Lowndes141953
Wilcox127030
Bullock124242
Conecuh112930
Coosa111129
Perry108726
Sumter105732
Greene93434
Choctaw61725
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