Civil forfeiture

South Carolina Lawmakers Introduce Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill After News Investigation Reveals Abuses

South Carolina would become the fourth state to abolish the practice of seizing property without a criminal conviction.

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South Carolina lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday to effectively abolish civil asset forfeiture, following a multi-part local news investigation that revealed widespread abuses of the practice, which allows police to seize property even when a person is not charged or convicted of a crime.

If the bill, H. 3968, passes, South Carolina would join three other states—New Mexico, Nebraska, and North Carolina—that have ended civil asset forfeiture by requiring criminal convictions before property can be forfeited. In total, 29 states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform over the past decade.

Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom

At a bipartisan press conference Wednesday, South Carolina state legislators unveiled the bill, which already has 71 cosponsors and the support of the free market* American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.

"I know some of you are saying, 'Oh my god, has hell frozen over? Cobb-Hunter is supporting something that ALEC is supporting,'" said state lawmaker Gilda Cobb-Hunter at the press conference. "Wonders never cease. It's a great day in South Carolina."

The bill would also redirect asset forfeiture funds to the state's general fund. Law enforcement groups say civil asset forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and organized crime, but civil liberties groups say allowing police departments to directly pad their budgets with forfeiture proceeds creates a perverse profit incentive that leads them to target everyday people and petty amounts of cash.

Additionally, the bill would forbid state and local enforcement from participating in the federal government's Equitable Sharing Program, which allows the Justice Department to "adopt" local forfeiture cases and split the proceeds. Critics say the program acts as a loophole that allows police to continue using civil asset forfeiture even in states that have passed reforms.

In January, The Greenville News began publishing the results of a two-year joint investigation with several other news outlets into every single civil asset forfeiture case in the state over a three-year period. The meticulous investigation revealed South Carolina police had raked in $17 million in forfeiture proceeds between 2014 and 2016.

As Reason wrote:

Nearly a fifth of the 4,000 people who had their property seized by South Carolina police between 2014 and 2016 were never arrested nor even charged with a related crime. Under typical civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize cash, cars, houses, and other property suspected of being connected to criminal activity even if the owner is never convicted of a crime […]

For example, there's the case of Ella Bromell, an elderly woman in Conway, South Carolina. Police and city officials tried to seize her house through civil asset forfeiture because of small drug deals taking place on her property, even though she was not connected in any way to the sales and had repeatedly tried to get rid of the dealers.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that has challenged forfeiture laws in several states, applauded the introduction of the bill.

"Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to private property and civil liberties in the nation today," Institute for Justice senior legislative counsel Lee McGrath said in a statement. "If enacted, South Carolina's forfeiture laws would be second only to New Mexico in safeguarding the constitutional rights of its residents. It's encouraging to see so many lawmakers, Democrat and Republican alike, come together to defend due process."

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated ALEC's ideological identification.