It’s hard to believe but under South Carolina civil asset forfeiture law, police can seize cash or valuables they simply believe to be ill-gotten without ever charging you with a crime, then require you to prove at your own expense your innocence to reclaim the property. That’s unfair, undemocratic and legally backward — plenty of reason for the Legislature to ban the practice.
So it was heartening to see more than 80 state representatives sign onto a bill Wednesday that would abolish civil asset forfeiture. Thanks to an in-depth series by the Greenville News and the Anderson Independent Mail, we also know that blacks have been disproportionately victimized, and less than half of seizures resulted in criminal convictions between 2014 and 2016.
The take totaled $17.6 million from more than 4,000 people over three years, according to the newspapers. Nearly two-thirds of the assets were seized from black men, though they make up only about 13 percent of the population.
Of about 3,200 cases, no criminal charges were filed in 783 of them. In another 727 cases, criminal charges were filed but did not result in convictions. In just 6 percent of cases were people able to get their property back, highlighting the unfairness of a system that needs to be changed.
Police typically keep 75 percent of the proceeds for their own departments, while prosecutors get 20 percent. The rest goes to the state’s general fund. In slightly more than half of the cases, less than $1,000 was taken. About a third of the cases involved $500 or less, making it hardly worth the time and money for suspects to hire a lawyer and contest the seizures.
If the bill by Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, is signed into law, South Carolina would join just three other states, including North Carolina, that have abolished civil asset forfeiture, something The Post and Courier has long advocated for.
“It’s about time,” Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, a former judge, said at a Statehouse news conference. “I have spent a career protecting the rights of individuals. … I believe in individual rights and individual liberties, and this is one of the most important pieces of legislation that we are going to consider in this session.”
Cash has been the top target, but police have seized hundreds of cars, televisions and even appliances. The law has incentivized asset seizure and puts suspects in a legally backward position of having to prove their innocence. The tactic has long been criticized as “policing for profit.”
Criminal asset forfeiture would be mostly unaffected by the bill. Assets could still be seized in cases resulting in felony convictions, but law enforcement agencies would no longer benefit directly. And, importantly, the burden of proof would be on the state to prove guilt rather on defendants to prove their innocence.
In most cases, Rep. Clemmons’ bill also would stop South Carolina agencies from getting around state law by working with federal agencies to seize assets under federal law, a tactic that has allowed state agencies to collect tens of millions of dollars.
Similar efforts to reform civil asset forfeiture law have failed in recent years. A 2017 Post and Courier investigation showed record-keeping requirements were spotty. None of about a dozen agencies from which records were requested had reports on file for easy access.
Mr. Clemmons’ bill deserves support because it takes a comprehensive approach to reform, rightfully leaving law enforcement able to seize assets derived from crimes while ensuring suspects their constitutional right to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.