By Caleb Bedillion
TUPELO – New legislation approved by Gov. Phil Bryant requires increased public disclosure when law enforcement agencies seize private property.
House Bill 812, signed by Bryant on Monday, requires the creation of a public database which will list and track assets taken by law enforcement through civil action.
The new law also requires agencies to obtain a warrant within 72 hours after a seizure takes place.
Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre, however, is a little uneasy and believes that transparency may hamper his department.
“I don’t necessarily agree with it. It could hinder us from doing other investigations,” Aguirre said. “By putting this on a website, it shows our hand.”
Any drug-related seizures in Tupelo are initiated by the North Mississippi Narcotics Unit, a multi-jurisdictional task force that includes cities of Tupelo, Booneville, Fulton, Pontotoc, Okolona and Amory, as well as Lee, Prentiss, Monroe, Pontotoc, Itawamba and Chickasaw counties.
Bruce Dodson, an agent with the task force, estimated that the unit annually conducts approximately 100 seizures.
Cash, cars and firearms are typically the most frequently seized items, according to Dodson.
He doesn’t believe the new law will affect the unit’s activities much, except to increase administrative red-tape a little.
“It’s going to be more paperwork for me,” said Dodson. “That’s about the only change. I have to track all this stuff anyway.”
Under state statute, law enforcement agencies may seek to take property including cash, vehicles and even land if they believe the property was acquired from or used during drug related crimes.
Under current laws, if a law enforcement agency wants to take any kind of property valued at less than $20,000, an attorney or other representative of the agency must serve any owners of the property with notice of the intent to seize.
The owners or other persons with an interest in the property then have 30 days to file a petition contesting the seizure. If there is no response, the asset defaults to the agency.
If agencies want to seize property valued at more than $20,000, the agency must file forfeiture proceedings in circuit or county court.
Under current law, an agency may retain its own attorney to handle these court proceedings. Under the law signed Monday, however, only a district attorney or the state Bureau of Narcotics may prosecute seizure proceedings in court.
District attorneys will also face the task of inputting information about forfeiture actions into a public, online database managed by the state Bureau of Narcotics.
Asset forfeiture has proven controversial, and critics charge that the practice is often abused and creates a so-called “policing for profit” motivation.
Civil seizure may occur even if the property owner has not been charged with or convicted of a crime. The burden of proof is also lower for civil action than criminal action.
Calls for more restrictions on forfeiture cuts across standard ideological lines, uniting libertarian conservatives and liberal civil rights proponents.