House Bill 812 law establishes transparency in property seizures

Published 7:00 am Thursday, March 16, 2017

This story was updated to include comments from the Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department. 

On Monday, Gov. Phil Bryant followed a nationwide trend, signing into law a new statue that will increase transparency of property seizures by law enforcement across the state.
House Bill 812 was the byproduct of a task force put together last year to assess how the state handles money and asset seizures, 15th District Court District Attorney Hal Kittrel said.
Essentially there are three aspects of the bill as they were proposed by the task force, which was chaired by Rep. Mark Baker, Kittrell said.
First, within 12 months of the state making appropriations, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics will be responsible for maintaining a public, downloadable website for every forfeiture in the state, Kittrell said.
The information, for both administrative seizures (under $20,000) and judicial seizures (over $20,000) will be provided by the state’s district attorneys in order to maintain the website, he said.
Because district attorney offices already oversee both of those seizures, it is a good depository for that information, Kittrell said.

Previously there was no warrant process for those seizures before, Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Shane Tucker said. Instead, law enforcement would file a notice of intent to seize property, which is “basically their receipt for whatever property we seized,” he said.
Secondly, the law states that agencies can no longer hire private council to oversee seizures. Concern remained about whether private council would have different motivation than a county or circuit court judge, who under the new law will be responsible for reviewing each seizure.
The third aspect of the law is a 72-hour rule, Kittrell said.
After an administrative seizure takes place, the law enforcement agency has 72 hours to have it reviewed, and approved, by a circuit or county court judge, not municipal or otherwise, Kittrell said.
While Kittrell said he understands the idea behind the new procedure, it could cause problems for smaller districts that only have one judge.

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If a judge signs the warrant, he cannot hear the case, Kittrell said, so for counties with only one judge, they will have to bring in someone from a neighboring area.

This new policy could actually reduce the number of seizure appeals, Tucker said.

“The extra step with the judge’s approval, prior to going to DA, is going to limit those appeals even more,” he said. “If one judge signs it, it’s a pretty good indication that were on good standing for the warrant.”
Originally, he said the task force pushed for at least 10 days to have seizures reviewed, but with five judges available in Pearl River County, he said he “hopes it’s not going to bog the judges down.”
However, the 72-hour rule excludes weekends and holidays, he said.
Previously, district attorney offices would have had 30 days to review those cases, Kittrell said.
Nationwide, there has been a trend to reform forfeiture laws, with most of the criticism directed at administrative seizures, Kittrell said. Critics have called these forfeitures “law enforcement taking little Johnny’s lunch money,” Kittrell said, though testimony to that effect was absent during a public meeting on the issue.
“We’re following the same law…it doesn’t change the threshold, it just changes who we say it to,” Kittrell said.
Forfeitures are necessary, he said, in order to seize property used by drug businesses to run the enterprise.
“I understand the steps being taken, and I’m not in opposition to it,” Kittrell said, adding that he believes other district attorneys, judges and law enforcement will abide by the new regulations.

“We’ve seized money or property in the past and had that individual come in and provide some sort of proof that the property or currency was legally obtained and we’ve returned it…we’re certainly not out to steal from anyone,” Tucker said.

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