South Carolina’s lawmakers listened to testimony today on proposed changes to civil forfeiture laws in the state. Members of the General Assembly are making another attempt to revamp the state’s civil forfeiture statutes, which are facing a legal challenge in the state Supreme Court.
“Citizens are having money taken off of them,” said Rep. Seth Rose (D-District 72), who sits on the committee trying to change forfeiture laws in South Carolina, in a press release. “And there may not even be the requisite nexus to criminal activity, but their money has been seized, and they don’t have the means or power to fight for that chunk of change back.”
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process used by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to seize property (cars, cash, real estates, and the like) that they suspect is involved in a crime, without necessarily charging or convicting the property owner. Critics of the process argue that it creates a perverse profit incentive because the agency that performs the seizure often gets to keep a large portion of the proceeds. In South Carolina, for example, law enforcement agencies can keep up to 95 percent of forfeiture proceeds.
The reforms proposed by South Carolina’s legislators seek to:
- End roadside asset seizures during traffic stops.
- Stop seizures of money and assets if someone is not convicted of a crime.
- Set minimum forfeiture thresholds of $500 for cash and $2,500 for vehicles and other types of property. According to Rose, an estimated 55 percent of the monies seized under the current are less than $1,000.
- Move litigation of cases involving seized assets from civil courts to criminal courts.
Rose said he is additionally working on an amendment that will put the burden of proof in forfeiture cases on law enforcement agencies rather than the property owner. He is also advocating for the establishment of a separate general fund for assets seized after a property owner is convicted of a crime.
The legislators did not vote on the measure last Thursday, but more debate will be heard and new amendments possibly introduced over the coming weeks. If the measure is approved, it will move to the House Judiciary committee. It will have to pass by a full House and Senate before it reaches the governor’s desk.
This isn’t the first time South Carolina’s lawmakers have attempted to reform the state’s forfeiture laws. The first attempt was two years ago, after an investigative series published by The Greenville News detailed how state law enforcement agencies net millions of dollars annually by seizing assets from people suspected of illegal activity. Those reform efforts got derailed in 2020 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Until actual reform is passed, residents of South Carolina and many other states with similar forfeiture laws are at risk of having their lawful property seized by law enforcement without being charged for any wrongdoing. If you are the victim of such a seizure, then you should immediately consult an experienced civil forfeiture attorney. There is typically a limited time window for challenging a seizure, so forfeiture victims must act quickly.
Nationwide Federal Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
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