Civil forfeiture cases across the country have drawn increasing scrutiny because of a combination of the financial incentives which encourage abuse, and the lack of due process. The Mississippi Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion protecting individual due process rights, and specifically the right to speedy trial/hearing in any forfeiture case.
The case began when Eric Jones was arrested after being caught with 6.2 grams of cocaine in May 2002. The Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department gave notice of its intent to forfeit Jones’s 1984 Chevy Camaro. Jones timely filed an objection contesting the forfeiture. The forfeiture was stayed pending disposition of the criminal charges. It is unclear why the case languished but the forfeiture hearing did not take place until more than 9 years later. For unknown reasons Jones did not show up for the hearing.
When Jones did not appear at the hearing, the County made a tactical mistake. Because Jones timely filed his objection to the forfeiture, the County had the burden of proof. However, rather than put on their proof, the County moved to dismiss the case. In response, the trial court issued an order dismissing Jones’s objection with prejudice for failure to prosecute.
Jones appealed the decision claiming that his right to a speedy trial had been denied, and that the trial court erred in dismissing his objection. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case for an initial determination as to whether Jones’s right to a speedy trial had been violated. The Court of Appeals also reversed the trial court and remanded the case because the County failed to put on the necessary proof.
In doing so the Court of Appeals re-affirmed the four-element proportionality test for forfeiture cases which requires the government to prove: (1) the nexus between the offense and the property and the extent of the property’s role in the offense; (2) The role and culpability of the owner; (3) the possibility of separating the offending property from the remainder; and, (5) whether, after a review of all relevant facts, the forfeiture divests the owner of property which has a value that is grossly disproportionate to the crime or grossly disproportionate to the culpability of the owner.
The full cite for this case is 1984 Chevy Camaro v. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Dept, 148 So.3d 672 (Miss. Ct. App. 2014). For more information on Mississippi forfeiture law, click here.