Last year, the Court of Common Pleas for the 15th Judicial Circuit evaluated South Carolina’s civil forfeiture statutes and ruled that they are unconstitutional because they violate citizens’ rights to due process and freedom from excessive fines. That ruling was appealed by prosecutors to the South Carolina Supreme Court, and the appeals hearing was scheduled for January 13, 2021.
Under the current system, when police in South Carolina seize items during an investigation—such as cash or guns found in a drug raid—the police department can file a request in court to keep the proceeds.
The high court listened to arguments from an attorney representing the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm pushing for the nationwide abolition of civil forfeiture, and a prosecutor representing the 15th Judicial Circuit.
How exactly does civil asset forfeiture work?
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process that allows police to seize cash, guns, vehicles, and other valuables as long as they have probable cause to believe the property was involved in criminal activity. The property owner doesn’t necessarily have to be charged for any wrongdoing before the property is seized.
Critics of the practice say the fact that police get to keep the property, or the proceeds from the sale of the property, creates a perverse profit incentive that encourages them to file forfeiture cases. In South Carolina, for example, law enforcement and prosecuting groups get to keep up to 95 percent of forfeited funds.
The civil forfeiture process in South Carolina gained a lot of attention last year after local paper Greenville News publicized how seized items were being used by law enforcement and who was targeted in forfeiture cases. The Greenville News’ investigation revealed that South Carolina police seized more than $17 million using civil forfeiture over three years. It also found that police disproportionately targeted Black men and that 40 percent of South Carolinians who had their property seized were never convicted.
During the January 13 hearing, many of the justices’ questions focused on potential abuses of the practice, citing the highly publicized cases published by Greenville News. They spent over an hour asking questions of Robert Frommer, who represented the Institute for Justice, and 15th Judicial Circuit prosecutor James Battle.
The hearing ended with the justices accusing Battle of being untruthful, according to sources. He had reportedly argued that judges function as a “stop gap” to prevent potential abuse after police make a seizure using civil forfeiture, but he was unable to provide an answer when asked if his office drops criminal charges after consent agreements were made on a forfeiture.
“You know, you’ve danced around just about every question we’ve asked today, without really complete answers,” said Chief Justice Don Beatty to Battle during the hearing.
The Supreme Court has not yet made a decision on the case. Whatever the justices decide, it will set a precedence and potentially change how law enforcement in South Carolina can seize someone’s property.
Until South Carolina and other states with similar forfeiture laws pass strong reforms, the only recourse for victims of civil forfeiture is to hire an experienced civil asset forfeiture attorney who can protect your rights through every step of the recovery process.
Nationwide Federal Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
Have police or federal agents seized your property using civil forfeiture? Contact Brian Silber, P.A. to set up a free initial consultation and work with an experienced nationwide federal civil asset forfeiture attorney.