An investigation by the Greenville News found that South Carolina police are systematically seizing millions of dollars each year in cash and property — often from people who are not guilty of a crime and disproportionately from black men.
The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail examined every court case involving civil asset forfeiture in South Carolina from 2014 to 2016. The unprecedented investigation involved reviewing more than 3200 forfeiture cases, speaking with dozens of targeted citizens and more than 50 experts and officials, and contacting every law enforcement agency in the state.
The data revealed that law enforcement seized more than $17 million over three years. Law enforcement agencies, many of which sponsor contests with trophies for officers who make the largest or most seizures, get 95 percent of forfeiture revenue with the rest going to the state's general fund, the report found.
Police use it to pay for new guns and gear, for training and meals and for food for their police dogs. In one case, the Spartanburg County sheriff kept a top-of-the-line pick-up truck as his official vehicle and sold countless other items at auctions.
The Greenville News reports that these seizures leave thousands of people without their cash or belongings, and many never get their money back.
Nearly one-fifth of people whose assets were seized were not charged with a related crime, reporters discovered. Of more than 4000 people targeted for civil forfeiture over three years, 19 percent were never arrested. Nearly 800 people were charged with a crime but not convicted.
The data showed that more than 55 percent of cash seizures involved less than $1000, suggesting that police are not targeting drug kingpins or money laundering operations.
Some states require police to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in court that seized assets are the product of drug sales or other illegal activity, but there is no such requirement in South Carolina. When a forfeiture is contested, the report explains, South Carolina prosecutors have to show only a preponderance of evidence in order to keep seized goods.
Records showed that prosecutors typically take nearly a year, and often wait until after the two-year limitations period, to file for forfeiture. Once cases are filed, citizens whose assets have been seized must respond within 30 days, and they must prove the goods belong to them and were obtained legally.
Legacy of Racial Injustice
Black men are targeted the most, the report found. They comprise 13 percent of South Carolina's population, but make up 65 percent of those targeted for civil forfeiture. White people are twice as likely as black people to get their money back, the report says.
The report observes that South Carolina "has a long history of racial discrimination related to property."
Civil forfeiture is a vestige of that history, some critics say. It links to an established trend of targeted law enforcement that puts more police in contact with non-whites, an exposure that can lead to civil forfeiture, experts say.
The racial disparities in the data exist broadly across the state, the report says, but the decisions that lead to civil forfeiture are situational, such as traffic stops. Black drivers in South Carolina are most likely to be stopped by police and searched, the reports says, citing a 2017 study by the Stanford Open Policing Project which found the state had the second highest rate of black motorists stopped by state troopers.
Excluding known traffic stops, police in South Carolina (which is 69 percent white) seized money from black people in two-thirds of all cases compared with one-third for whites, the data analysis shows.
The report shares the example of Ella Bromell, a 72-year-old widow who is African American. Ms. Bromell spent a decade fighting against the forfeiture of her home after police said she did not do enough to stop young men from using her lawn to sell drugs at night, despite her multiple attempts to stop them.
The Greenville News reports that 29 states have taken steps to reform the forfeiture process; 15 states now require a criminal conviction in order for property to be forfeited.
Recent reform bills in South Carolina have failed to make it out of committee.
Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment's ban on "excessive fines" applies to states, limiting the ability of state and local governments to seize property.
In her majority opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg traced the roots of excessive fines to the convict leasing system:
Following the Civil War, Southern states enacted Black Codes to subjugate newly freed slaves and maintain the prewar racial hierarchy. Among these laws’ provisions were draconian fines for violating broad proscriptions on ‘vagrancy’ and other dubious offenses. When newly freed slaves were unable to pay imposed fines, States often demanded involuntary labor instead.
While the decision will not stop civil forfeitures altogether, it allows citizens to challenge takings by police when the property seized is disproportionate to the crime, and state courts may use the decision to more closely scrutinize civil forfeitures.
"Police and prosecutors have no incentive to be reasonable about what they take because they get to keep everything they take," Wesley P. Hottot, who argued the case on behalf of the petitioner, told the New York Times. "Now we know that judges at the end of the process have to evaluate if that's really justice or not."