Civil asset forfeiture could soon be on its way out in South Carolina, and good riddance.
Too often it has incentivized law enforcement agencies to unfairly seize cash and property, put suspects in an untenable position of having to prove their innocence and disproportionately affected black men.
Attorney General Alan Wilson has asked his legal experts to study revamping or abolishing civil asset forfeiture laws and is open to considering reforms, spokesman Robert Kittle said.
The U.S. Supreme Court could force his hand, as could a bill making its way through the Legislature.
The high court recently ruled the Constitution’s 8th Amendment ban on excessive fines applies to state and local governments. The ruling came in a case out of Indiana in which a man had his $42,000 Land Rover confiscated for selling about $400 worth of heroin.
South Carolina law enforcement agencies took in about $17.6 million is seized assets from about 4,000 people in 3,200 cases between 2014 and 2016, according to the series “Taken” by the Greenville News and Anderson Independent-Mail. That speaks both to the incentive that seizures provide law enforcement and to the magnitude of the problem.
Also troubling is that almost two-thirds of these seizures came from black men. In nearly half of all cases, no criminal charges were filed or the charges didn’t result in convictions. Incredibly, in just 6 percent of cases were people able to reclaim their assets, valued at $500 or less in about half of the cases. That speaks to the patent unfairness of the process, one in which uncharged suspects have no right to a public defender and must prove their innocence at their own costs.
How the Supreme Court ruling will shake out in South Carolina in unknown, though it’s clear the decision applies to states and to asset forfeiture specifically. And it could have a noticeable effect on local law enforcement budgets.
Meanwhile, Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, is ahead of the curve. He has proposed a bill that would abolish civil asset forfeiture law in South Carolina. Upon a felony conviction, ill-gotten gains could still be seized under criminal asset forfeiture law, and the assets would go to the state’s general fund, not the agency that seized them. Naturally, the burden of proving guilt would be on the state.
The bill adds some duties to the attorney general’s office, and Mr. Wilson has yet to decide whether he will support it. If the bill is signed into law, South Carolina would join three other states that have voided civil asset forfeiture. In the House, the bill needs 63 votes to pass, and 102 members have signed on as co-sponsors.
We encourage lawmakers to do away with such seizures. The presumption of innocence is one of the most basic legal principles in American justice, but civil asset forfeiture law perversely renders a suspect guilty until proven innocent. And civil asset forfeiture law, as applied in South Carolina, has been clearly discriminatory to African-Americans and the poor who can seldom afford the legal help needed to reclaim their property.
Abolishing civil asset forfeiture will come at a cost — many law enforcement agencies derive about 10 percent of their budgets from seizures — but the Legislature would be wise to do it before the courts force the issue. The attorney general should be willing to guide the process.
Policing shouldn’t be for profit.