GREENVILLE, S.C. – A team of reporters from the USA TODAY Network in South Carolina spent two years investigating the state’s civil asset forfeiture system, with police seizing cash and property from people and making millions.
Citizens don’t have easy recourse to regain their money and property, because it all takes place under civil law, without court-appointed attorneys. Most states, including South Carolina, have no oversight into how often police seize money from people, who they seize it from or how much law enforcement profits.
The TAKEN investigation scoured every civil asset forfeiture case in South Carolina, more than 3,200 cases involving more than 4,000 people from 2014 to 2016, and found surprising results in a first-of-its-kind investigation.
Here are 5 takeaways:
1. Police seize millions of dollars each year
Agencies in South Carolina seized more than $17 million from people over the course of three years. The bulk of that money ends up in the hands of law enforcement to pay for drug crime fighting. Police in South Carolina use the money to buy parts for helicopters, lunches at training sessions, ballistic vests and other equipment and in some places to pay for the department’s K-9 unit.
More: TAKEN: How police departments make millions by seizing property
2. In your state, civil forfeiture may not be used heavily at all.
Nebraska, New Mexico and North Carolina have eliminated civil forfeiture, while 29 states have enacted reforms to place some limits on forfeiture in recent years, according to the Institute for Justice, a reform advocacy law practice. Motivating factors for the state changes mainly centered on property owner protection and elimination of profit incentives for police.
3. Police often don’t make an arrest.
We found almost 800 times when police seized money or property when no related criminal charge could be found in the court system. In another 800 cases, someone was charged with a crime but was not convicted. Often the civil case still proceeded.
As part of recent reforms, 15 states have made forfeiture dependent on a criminal conviction. South Carolina has not enacted any reform, though two bills were filed in late 2018 and a third bill was filed this week.
4. Black men bear the brunt of forfeiture cases.
In South Carolina, 65 percent of all forfeiture cases involved black men, though black men make up just 13 percent of the state’s population.
Some places showed an even wider disparity. In Myrtle Beach, 82 percent of forfeiture cases were filed against black men. They make up 13 percent of the city’s population.
5. Your cash disappears in minutes. It may take years to get it back.
Prosecutors in South Carolina have up to two years after police take your money to file a civil court case justifying the seizure. They often take nearly that long. On average, the investigation found that when a person petitions to have their money or property returned, the case takes 17 months to be resolved from the time your money was taken, even if you did nothing wrong. Your other option? Hire your own lawyer and sue the police to try to get it sooner.
Forfeiture has been a hot topic recently at the federal level. President Barack Obama’s administration put some limits on sharing civil forfeiture cases between state and federal agencies, but President Donald Trump’s administration rolled back those limits.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case in November that could impact civil forfeiture at the state level. The court is expected to rule in Timbs vs. Indiana on whether the Eighth Amendment’s clause on excessive fines applies to forfeiture at the state level.
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