Horry County Judge Steven H. John declared that the South Carolina’s forfeiture laws violate constitutional protections against excessive fines by allowing the government to seize amounts of cash and property disproportionate to the alleged crime.
“Indeed, [the laws] allow the government to seize unlimited amounts of cash and other property when no crime has been committed, without a criminal conviction and without proof of a crime having been committed beyond a determination of probably cause,” the judge wrote.
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal practice that allows authorities to seize money, cars, and other possessions that are supposedly connected to a crime even if the owner hasn’t been convicted or charged with one.
Proponents say forfeiture takes the profit out of drug crime and helps finance law enforcement efforts, but critics say the statutes are ripe for abuse.
John’s decision was made in the civil forfeiture case of Travis Lee Green, who was sentenced to 15 years for drug dealing. Drug enforcement agents seized cash from Green after they allegedly bought cocaine from him on three occasions in an undercover operation. The agents executed a warrant to search his home, where they reportedly found almost $20,000 in cash and drugs, which they seized.
The judge ruled it was unconstitutional to seize Green’s money using asset forfeiture laws. While his ruling doesn’t set precedent beyond his courtroom, the decision could set the stage for a state appellate court to decide whether South Carolina needs to rewrite its civil asset forfeiture law.
Currently, the state allows police to seize property from people suspected of drug dealing even if they haven’t been charged or convicted of a crime. From 2014 to 2016, law enforcement agencies across South Carolina reportedly seized $17 million, and almost 20% of over 4,000 people who had their property seized were never charged with a crime.
In February, a bipartisan group of state representatives proposed a bill to reform asset forfeiture statutes in response to a two-year investigation by Greenville News. The bill would allow law enforcement to only seize property with a criminal conviction, and also make it harder for police to seize items during traffic stops.
However, the push for reform was stalled in the spring 2019 session. The lawmakers have reportedly been meeting in a study committee to work out the details of the proposal. The committee plans to propose an amendment to the bill and introduce it at the start of the 2020 session.
“The abuses under the current civil asset forfeiture in South Carolina are far and wide,” Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, told Greenville News. “The stories being reported on by your newspaper aren’t an aberration. They are facts that we’ve been seeing quite often across South Carolina and across the U.S.”
South Florida Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire an attorney. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.