Civil asset forfeiture is a legal maneuver used by police agencies to seize property from individuals accused, but not necessarily convicted, of a crime. The Cato Institute has referred to mechanisms that fund police agencies through civil asset forfeiture abuse as “policing for profit.” Some civil liberties advocates feel that, when local police departments can raise funds by seizing cash from travelers on the highway on mere suspicion of criminal activity, there is a corrupting incentive for officers to, as an example, interpret a cash withdrawal that someone might make to buy a used car as evidence of drug dealing.
Mississippi Watchdog‘s Steve Wilson recently sounded the alarm on apparent civil asset forfeiture abuse taking place in Richland, MS. The 7,033-person city features a $4.1 million police station, a new fleet of Dodge Chargers, and a police training complex so advanced that it is also used by 22 other local law enforcement agencies.
Said Wilson in his report, “Since 2006, Richland’s four-officer interdiction team has racked up huge forfeiture numbers. In 2014, the team seized $506,400 in cash and property, helping boost the city’s civil forfeiture account to more than $2.3 million. For those keeping score at home, that’s $72 for every resident of Richland. The city also reported $400,000 in revenue from fines and court costs… Those numbers are actually down from past years. In 2013, the department seized more than $1.2 million in cash and property.”
Richland Mayor Mark Scarborough started having officers seize assets through a drug interdiction program back in 2005. His officers mainly target travelers headed in and out of Jackson, MS on I-20. “It’s great to be able to say that we built that [police station] and built it not only today, but built it for the future with funds that aren’t taxpayer dollars. That frees us up huge with the rest of the city. Every other department benefits from the drug seizure deal,” said Scarborough, defending his asset seizures.
Wilson’s report notes that Richland seizes far more property per capita than neighboring police agencies. Wilson wrote, “The city of Clinton, on Interstate 20 west of Jackson in neighboring Hinds County, declared only $10,000 in seized assets on the balance sheet of the city’s 2015 budget. In a 2014 audit of Brandon’s finances, the Rankin County city listed $567,510 in fines and forfeitures in 2013. In the city of Jackson’s most recent budget, the city listed more than $3.1 million in fines and forfeitures.”
Civil liberties law firm the Institute for Justice gave Mississippi a “D+” ranking for its civil asset forfeiture rules, noting that police only need a preponderance of evidence that property is related to a crime in order to seize it, that the burden of proof is on property owners to prove in civil court that the property was not used in a crime in order to get it back, and that police in the state are not required to report data on the items that they seize from individuals. The Institute for Justice calls the 80% rate at which Mississippi police agencies can keep the proceeds of their seizures a “corrupting incentive.”