Civil forfeiture

The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail recently published an investigative series of stories about civil forfeiture that has created shock waves in Columbia.

South Carolina’s antiquated civil forfeiture laws give law enforcement the ability to seize cash, cars, jewelry and almost anything of value that they think might be connected to criminal activity.

When this occurs, the presumption of innocence gets tossed out the window and it becomes the responsibility of citizens to prove their innocence in order to recover their property.

Horry County legislators Rep. Alan Clemmons along with Rep. Russell Fry, recently sponsored legislation in the S.C. General Assembly to make major revisions to the state’s civil forfeiture laws.

The state would still be able to confiscate property, but only after a suspect is found guilty.

Law enforcement agencies throughout South Carolina cried foul after hearing about the proposed legislation. They contend the ability to sieze property and keep it helps fund efforts to combat drug trafficking.

The newspapers’ investigation cited a 2016 case in which Myrtle Beach police broke up a drug ring. In the process they took cars, firearms, a four-bedroom house and $80,000.

Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson told the newspapers that taking a drug ring’s operating cash strikes a critical blow against traffickers in a way that criminal charges don’t.

“A drug enterprise is an onion, it’s a multitude of layers,” he said. “Some tools hurt the traffickers, some hurt the enterprise itself. I feel this hurts the enterprise.”

Obviously, civil forfeiture can be a strong deterrent to crime. But the investigative series revealed some disturbing facts about the practice.

For example:

•Black men, who represent 13 percent of the state’s population, are targeted for civil forfeiture in 65 percent of the cases.

•Out of 4,000 people involved in civil forfeiture over the past three years, 19 percent were never arrested. Most never recovered the property taken from them.

•Most of the money confiscated by police doesn’t come fron drug kingpins. Rather, it comes from hundreds of police stops where police take smaller amounts of cash.

It can take years for people to get their money back because the entire burden of recovering property is on the citizens, who must prove the goods belong to them and were obtained legally.

Over the past 17 years, law enforcement agencies have confiscated more than $17 million. They use it to pay for new guns, gear, training, meals and even dog food for the K-9 units.

Some officers say they will have less incentive to make drug stops if their departments are not allowed to keep the suspect’s money and assets.

They justify this position by saying citizens can use due process to get their assets back. (Doing so is easier said then done.)

I really liked the bill sponsored by Clemmons and Fry and was hoping that it would become law.

However, after a backlash from law enforcement, it’s gotten hung up in the legislature. Recently, it underwent a number of revisions that weaken the bill considerably.

According to the Greenville News, the amendment proposed this past week would still allow for forfeiture for certain misdemeanor convictions that currently allow forfeiture as a penalty, such as driving under suspension (fourth conviction), illegal gambling, prostitution and some drug crimes.

It would prohibit forfeitures of less than $1,500 cash or of vehicles valued less than $2,500, eliminating smaller forfeiture cases that law enforcement officials agreed shouldn’t be the focus of forfeiture.

And it would allow prosecutors to use criminal forfeiture as part of negotiating plea agreements.

I understand the police must have the tools necessary to engage in the war on drugs. Hitting drug dealers in their pocketbook is one of those tools.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Constitution trumps this state’s civil forfeiture laws. They must be revised to protect law-abiding citizens.

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Steve Robertson is owner and publisher of the Waccamaw Publishers family of community newspapers

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