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: 512632

Reported Deaths: 10262
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34853555
DeSoto33162432
Hinds32556641
Jackson24830389
Rankin22442402
Lee16238242
Madison14874283
Jones14086247
Forrest13741259
Lauderdale12249324
Lowndes11286193
Lamar10644140
Pearl River9707244
Lafayette8827143
Hancock7835132
Washington7550169
Oktibbeha7204138
Monroe6989179
Pontotoc6970109
Warren6849178
Panola6746134
Neshoba6726210
Marshall6653141
Bolivar6440151
Union633897
Pike5924156
Alcorn5862107
Lincoln5525136
George510180
Prentiss500884
Tippah490282
Itawamba4829107
Scott477499
Adams4766125
Tate4748116
Leflore4723144
Copiah455895
Yazoo455591
Simpson4543117
Wayne442772
Covington432895
Sunflower4299106
Marion4265112
Coahoma4227109
Leake413790
Newton395581
Tishomingo381793
Grenada3775109
Stone365666
Jasper340166
Attala337790
Winston317792
Chickasaw313367
Clay311878
Clarke301195
Calhoun284449
Holmes271289
Smith268952
Yalobusha243747
Tallahatchie231453
Greene224749
Walthall221366
Lawrence217840
Perry213356
Amite209557
Webster205148
Noxubee188642
Montgomery181557
Carroll174441
Jefferson Davis173643
Tunica163239
Benton152639
Kemper144941
Choctaw136527
Claiborne134238
Humphreys131139
Franklin124929
Quitman107528
Wilkinson105939
Jefferson96834
Sharkey65121
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 844951

Reported Deaths: 16115
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1161002006
Mobile741871379
Madison53279732
Shelby38325368
Baldwin38068589
Tuscaloosa36009641
Montgomery34482781
Lee25550263
Calhoun22585518
Morgan22451406
Etowah20013517
Marshall18777316
Houston17727425
St. Clair16875358
Limestone16135218
Cullman16044303
Elmore15904294
Lauderdale14968306
Talladega14189299
DeKalb12967269
Walker12020380
Blount10714192
Autauga10517157
Jackson10157194
Coffee9414192
Colbert9334208
Dale9018191
Tallapoosa7254201
Russell707765
Chilton7018170
Escambia6955143
Covington6932195
Franklin6340108
Chambers5783142
Marion5401130
Dallas5285209
Pike5118109
Clarke484986
Lawrence4826129
Winston4780110
Geneva4642136
Bibb434094
Barbour369480
Butler3434100
Marengo342393
Monroe337066
Randolph334367
Pickens333188
Fayette330085
Henry320666
Hale318189
Cherokee317563
Crenshaw260477
Washington256952
Cleburne254460
Lamar251253
Clay250869
Macon244764
Conecuh192762
Coosa184947
Lowndes178168
Wilcox177438
Bullock152645
Perry141840
Sumter139241
Greene130245
Choctaw93228
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