OUR OPINION: Bill brings beneficial transparency for all

A new measure signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant this week will provide powerful oversight for the public regarding the money and assets seized by police agencies, a strong step in the right direction to allowing public entities to function as transparently as possible.

On Monday, Bryant signed House Bill 812, which will require the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics to maintain a public website that lists all forfeitures taken through civil court proceedings.

The measure also calls for a judge to approve a seizure warrant within 72 hours of a police agency taking property, and for either the local district attorney or the Bureau of Narcotics to handle the forfeiture case in court, as reported by the Associated Press.

If a law enforcement agency fails to obtain a seizure warrant within 72 hours, those agents would be forced to give the property back.

The measure, supporters say, will guard against potential abuses by requiring police agencies to diligently track forfeitures publicly and by ensuring someone else besides a lawyer hired by the agency handles forfeiture court cases.

In Mississippi, local police agencies can keep 80 percent of the value of the forfeiture, while the other 20 percent goes to a district attorney or state agency.

As part of the new measure, prosecutors are instructed to upload information – including the name of the seizing agency, a description of the property and its estimated value – and associated legal documentation.

The only item not handled in the bill is how these new measures will be funded. Lawmakers must provide funding for the website before it can go live.

“I’m a big believer in property rights,” Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, a supporter, told the Associated Press. “If somebody’s property is seized or forfeited, I think there needs to be transparency.”

Bomgar expressed confidence that lawmakers would find the money to allow the bill to take effect on July 1 as scheduled.

The Institute of Justice, a Libertarian legal group based near Washington D.C., said Mississippi and local agencies got more than $47 million from 2000 to 2013 in assets seized in conjunction with federal agencies, according to the AP. It is unknown how much state and local agencies seized in cases without federal involvement.

The institute applauded the bill in a statement, but said it would have preferred a law that required agencies to publicly account for how they spend forfeiture money. Members of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi said they also would have preferred spending oversight.

While additional oversight would have only strengthened this measure, its passing is a step in the right direction.

We welcome measures that bring more oversight and transparency to public entities.

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