Mississippi Law Enforcement Performed $200,000 Worth Of Illegal Forfeitures Because It 'Didn't Realize' Law Had Changed
from the ignorance-of-the-law-is-the-best-excuse dept
Ignorance of the law is no excuse, us lowly peons of the American justice system are told. The same does not apply to law enforcement, whose business it is to enforce laws. I mean, it’s right there in the name. And yet…
Mississippi police agencies have been seizing cash, guns and vehicles without legal authority for months after a state law changed and police didn’t notice.
An Associated Press review of a Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics database shows more than 60 civil asset forfeitures with nearly $200,000 in property taken by state and local agencies under a law that lapsed on June 30.
“Didn’t notice.” Try using that excuse the next time you, I don’t know, hand someone a straw or… um… offer underweight ice cream to consumers. That’s the AP’s phrasing of the official excuse for law enforcement’s inexplicable inability to stay abreast of laws affecting their work.
Here’s what officials actually said, which uses more words, but doesn’t sound any better.
Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director John Dowdy said he didn’t know the law had expired until September, when a Rankin County prosecutor notified him.
“Honestly, we were unaware of the sunset provision,” he said. “We thought that had been fixed in the legislative session.”
Now, this could be a legitimate excuse. But not for a narcotics director who probably had plenty to say about the impending demise of the most profitable part of the state’s asset forfeiture program. He could not have been completely “unaware.” After all, here he is announcing the roll out of a website listing state forfeiture actions as mandated by the same law Dowdy now claims he didn’t know much about.
It might be a legitimate excuse for a federal official who may not know the legislature included a sunset provision that gave legislators a chance to kill the passed law before it went into effect. Some efforts were mounted to roll back the reforms, but they both died without moving forward.
Because law enforcement can’t follow the law, lots of people will be getting their stuff back. The Tampa Bay Times article says the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics is offering to return $42,000 worth of property it illegally seized — a phrase that makes its effort sound far more magnanimous than the reality: relinquishing stolen property.
But this screw up isn’t going to keep it from seizing what it can, no matter how petty the amount. The thirty-day window on seizures under $20,000 is still open on a few cases, so law enforcement is still moving ahead with a few small-ball forfeitures.
Dowdy said agencies that seized property could still sue, seeking a judicially-sanctioned forfeiture, if less than 30 days elapsed. In Harrison County, for example, officials filed suit to seize $939 from Danielle Laquay Smith on Sept. 26, exactly 30 days after seizure.
The new law requires all forfeitures to be handled in court. The old law only required that on seizures above $20,000. There’s more than $200,000 in illegal seizures on the books, and the potential return of $42,000-worth still leaves a lot unaccounted for. And much of that appears to be held by another person who can’t keep track of legislative developments despite his position as a government official.
In northern Mississippi, District Attorney John Champion said, “I wasn’t aware of that,” when asked about the change. Police agencies in his five-county district, particularly in DeSoto County, have the majority of questionable seizures listed statewide.
Officers are Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to perceived violations by citizens, but blissfully unaware of legal changes directly affecting their daily work. This is absurd. And it is the status quo. Prosecutors — who directly benefit from forfeitures — aren’t aware either, most likely because knowing the law would adversely affect a valuable revenue stream. This is inexcusable, but it’s also likely to go unpunished. The law is clear on the matter: negative effects of legislation shall be borne by the general public.