What happens in Columbia could shake up local funding for law enforcement, Myrtle Beach Police Chief Amy Prock told the city council in a workshop session.
The state legislators are debating a pair of bills that revamp how officers handle civil forfeiture and Prock is asking the city council to contact legislators to tell them about the negative impacts that may be felt locally.
Currently, she said, officers confiscate property such as cash, homes and cars as they investigate crimes. She said there is a system in place where individuals can make a claim for their property in civil court. If the claims are denied or never made, the seizing jurisdictions auction the property and keep most of the money to fund training needs and buy equipment. Some of the money from the property goes to the county solicitor’s office.
A state House Bill was set in motion by state Rep. Alan Clemmons, who has applied for the city’s attorney job. It has also been supported by state Rep. Russell Fry.
The two local legislators have stated the bill keeps people from losing their property if they are not convicted and tracks the seized property to a fund in Columbia.
The issue came to light as the Greenville News reported on a two-year project involving 3,200 cases from 2014 to 2016. The journalists wrote that the cases involved about $17 million that had been seized. About 20 percent of the cases involved no charges field and about 20 percent of those charged were not convicted.
Prock said if there had been abuse of the forfeiture laws, then those agencies should be punished. She added the state law enforcement agencies are not asking the bills be tossed out, rather the proposed reform hurts the agencies that didn’t do anything wrong.
“This is not about law enforcement pirating or looting,” she said. “If there is any abuses in the law, they should be held accountable.”
Council member Mike Lowder, a former police officer, said he plans to speak to the legislators.
“We should make sure they do it right and if they don’t do it right, do something about it,” he said of policing the law enforcement agencies in the state. “But, don’t punish the whole state, the whole law enforcement community in the state of South Carolina because of something a couple of agencies have been doing.”
Speaking form experience, Lowder said he has confidence Myrtle Beach is not one of the agencies that has abused the forfeiture laws.
“I don’t think we’re saying don’t pass it, but make some changes,” Myrtle Beach City Manager John Pedersen said. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Council member Mary Jeffcoat added she supports the city police force and finds the bill unsettling.
“It’s disturbing that two of our own legislators are sponsors of this bill,” she said. “It’s disturbing to me.”