By Zachary Blackwell

Elm Staff Writer

The right to have your property protected from unlawful search and seizure is a right that is often taken for granted. Yet, it is frustrating whenever your rights are violated, especially if it is violated by the people whose jobs are mainly assigned to protect your rights. And it is especially frustrating when those people do not follow or otherwise pay attention to outdated or lapsed laws.

Several law enforcement agencies in Mississippi, both local and state, seized $200,000 worth of property in more than 60 separate civil asset forfeitures under a law that had expired after June 30. Local and state police were apparently not aware of the law’s expiration date and assumed that the law had been renewed by the legislature. Among the property seized by authorities were guns, vehicles, and cash. All these seizures had been done over the course of months without legal authority.

According to the Associated Press, the law allowed police to take property valued a total of $20,000 or less that had been associated with illegal drugs, even if the owner of the property was not convicted of a criminal charge. The only exception would apply to owners who fought the seizure in court within 30 days of the seizure. Eighty percent of the value of the property went to the law enforcement agencies, while the remaining 20 percent went to either a district attorney or the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.

After the seizure law expired, law enforcement agencies in Mississippi could only seize property by suing in court and receiving the approval of a judge. This change in the administrative forfeiture law was made in the hopes that it would help protect people against questionable seizures from law enforcement, much to the delight of civil liberty groups.

Law enforcement agencies that had kept seized property for a period longer than 30 days have been legally obligated to return the stolen property to their owners. The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics alone has offered to return more than $42,000 worth in money, guns, and other owned property, as other agencies are scrambling to fix the illegal seizure problem.

It is very disheartening to see the unpreparedness of the law enforcement agencies who are responsible for enforcing the seizure law beyond its intended expiration date.

I believe that if your job constitutes enforcing the law, as well as protecting people’s rights, the agencies you work for should be able to keep themselves up-to-date on the status of laws in the country, state, county, or municipality. What is obvious after this incident is that the law enforcement agencies responsible did not check to see if their actions remained legally permissible.

Somewhat ironically, it is true that asset forfeiture laws exist partially because people want their property to be protected. More specifically, property is seized from suspected criminals so that other people who aren’t criminals can feel safer and keep their own property secure.

Forfeiture laws allow the police to seize a certain amount of property from people who have been suspected of committing a crime in the hopes that they aren’t able to commit those crimes so easily again. Forfeiture also allows financial benefits for the law enforcement agencies that use it; it’s a means of producing revenue for police, regardless of whether they need the money.

However, when the boundaries of asset forfeiture laws are ignored, it can often lead to consequences, and in many cases, asset forfeiture is unfairly enforced for the purpose of making more money. When income is prioritized over the welfare of people who have had their rights violated, it is extremely concerning.

Asset forfeiture laws are supposed to serve a purpose: keeping valuable objects used in crimes away from potential criminals. Yet they are also very often abused, in violation of people’s property rights.

The police should be held accountable for violating the rights of people who are instead supposed to have their rights protected by the law.

The Elm

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