Originally Published: Orlando Sentinel
Written by: David Safavian and Laurel Duggan

What does present-day Venezuela have in common with Mississippi in 2014? Both empowered the government to take private property without the benefit of a court proceeding.

Until late 2018, Mississippi practiced administrative forfeiture, a policy in which the state could take property worth up to $20,000 if government lawyers merely suspected it was connected to illegal drugs.

If the owner failed to retain a lawyer and file suit within a month, the property was automatically forfeited. No trial was necessary. No proof beyond a reasonable doubt was needed — suspicion was enough. About half of seized property was worth less than $1,000.

Few victims could afford to fight back for what was rightly theirs.

As conservatives, we support law enforcement. But not when it empowers government bureaucrats to seize property without a criminal conviction.

Less than a year after the state’s most egregious forfeiture practices were eliminated, a vocal minority attempted to reinstate the retired policy. Policy-makers in Jackson should be commended not for what they did in this last legislative session but for what they didn’t do.

They listened to the concerns of their constituents and refused to bring administrative forfeiture back to life.

Mississippi’s asset forfeiture regime was an affront to the founding fathers’ belief in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It fed a bloated bureaucracy while disrupting ordinary Mississippians’ efforts to work their way into better lives.

Equally concerning, administrative forfeiture created a perverse incentive system. Much of the money from forfeitures went into department slush funds that were neither transparent nor accountable. This “eat what you kill” approach undermined the public’s confidence in law enforcement.

John Locke’s vision of natural rights — life, liberty, and property — form the core of the American constitution. These rights were given by God, not the government; the proper role of government is to safeguard them. America’s protection of property rights allows our economy — and by extension, our people — to thrive. It distinguishes us from the socialist nightmares of countries like Venezuela, North Korea, and Zimbabwe, where the government can confiscate property arbitrarily.

Respect for law enforcement and skepticism of government power are not mutually exclusive. It is our responsibility to ensure that our founders’ belief in strong property rights is reflected in the law.

Mississippi took a step forward when it ended administrative forfeiture in 2018. To be sure, there is more work to do on other asset forfeiture programs. But legislators in Jackson deserve credit for putting the interests of their constituents first.

David Safavian is general counsel for the American Conservative Union. Laurel Duggan is a policy intern at the American Conservative Union Foundation.