Forfeiture deserves open debate

Published 12:10 am Friday, February 1, 2019

Mississippi lawmakers are considering a bill that would reinstate something called administrative asset forfeiture.

It’s such an important issue for law enforcement officers that dozens of them drove themselves to Jackson this week to lobby for the policy’s return.

The long arm of the law has the ability to seize assets that are suspected of being involved in criminal activity. It’s often how many drug agencies fund themselves and sometimes how law enforcement agencies wind up with exotic weapons, boats, helicopters and the like.

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For many years, Mississippi allowed two kinds of property seizure. One was judicial asset forfeiture, which is still in play. It involves the matter going before a judge to decide if the assets can be retained by the law enforcement agency.

Administrative asset forfeiture requires no such oversight. And there in lies the problem.

The law effectively allowed law enforcement officers to seize almost anything with a value of $20,000 or less and many of the property owners did not understand the law or have legal representation to get their stuff back, even when charges were later dropped.

The law allowing the practice was repealed last summer through a sunset clause in a bill from several years prior. Thus the matter is up for debate again.

A review of items seized includes all sorts of things that don’t seem to be justified as part of a criminal enterprise such as a weed trimmer.

We urge lawmakers to have an open, public and lengthy discussion of this before reinstating administrative asset forfeiture.

On the surface, at least, it seems like a bad idea. If the government — even the good guys on the police force — is going to take private property, a judge should review the matter.