The Mississippi city of Richland has a new $4.1 million police station, a top-level training center and a fleet of black-and-white Dodge Charger police cars.
All of it was paid for through civil forfeitures of property and cash seized during traffic stops of what police say were suspected drug runners on Interstate 20.
Civil libertarians question the constitutionality of civil forfeiture, which has become a key part of revenue for state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide. Under the laws of many states, citizens can be deprived of their property or even cash if police merely suspect the owners to be involved in criminal activity.
Mayor Mark Scarborough and police chief WR “Russel” James of Richland — population 7,033 and located south of Jackson on I-20 in Rankin County — say they’re not only giving city taxpayers a bargain, but they’re also helping do their part to stem the heavy drug trade that travels between Texas and Atlanta on I-20, which eventually trickles down to smaller cities like theirs.
Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the libertarian Institute for Justice, said the tide is turning on civil forfeiture in the nation.
Both Montana and New Mexico have reformed their civil forfeiture systems, and former Attorney General Eric Holder announced a number of changes in civil forfeiture at the federal level.
“Why legislative efforts (to reform civil forfeiture) in Mississippi and across the nation will ultimately succeed is because forfeiture is contrary to basic American principles,” McGrath said. “In Mississippi and across the United States, the American people believe a person is innocent until proven guilty. And so should his property. Forfeiture is contrary to that.
“The American people believe in a separation of power between the legislative branch and the executive branch. Forfeiture is contrary to that as well. Forfeiture gives law enforcement and other members of the executive branch the sword and the purse. When those two combine, there is a high probability of corruption.”
In Mississippi, the Institute for Justice gives Mississippi a D-plus for its laws on civil forfeiture. The state needs only a preponderance of evidence that the property is related to a crime, a lower standard than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard required for a criminal conviction. McGrath said property owners in Mississippi can be acquitted in a criminal proceeding, but still lose their property since those claims are contested in civil court, where the burden of proof is on the property owner, not the state.
The state also doesn’t require police to collect or report data on forfeiture use or proceeds.
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.
The city shares its part of the interstate and 50 percent of its seizures with the Pelahatchie Police Department, and 10 percent of every seizure goes to the office of the district attorney for Rankin and Madison counties, Michael Guest.
Those numbers are actually down from past years. In 2013, the department seized more than $1.2 million in cash and property.
Two years ago, Richland built a new training center with a target range used by 22 other law enforcement agencies in the area. The new police station, which opened last month, has spacious offices, a courtroom and better security than the old, cramped office across the street.
Richland’s interdiction numbers have been a huge money-maker for the police department, which, Scarborough said, has freed up city funds to invest in other needs, such as parks and a new fire station to replace the one destroyed by a tornado that hit the city last year.
“It’s great to be able to say that we built that building (the police station) and built it not only today, but built it for the future with funds that aren’t taxpayer dollars,” Scarborough said. “That frees us up huge with the rest of the city. Every other department benefits from the drug seizure deal.”
Scarborough started the interdiction program when he entered office in 2005, and it netted immediate results. One of the department’s first busts was $485,000 from a BMW on the back of a flatbed truck. James said the money was hidden in a secret drawer opened by pistons and a code. Another big bust was 40 to 50 gallons of pure methamphetamine oil contained inside a hidden tank in a truck.