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South Carolina Police Hauled in $17 Million Through Civil Asset Forfeiture Over Three Years

“The robber didn’t get anything, but the police got everything.”

Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/NewscomPaul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/NewscomSouth Carolina police seized more than $17 million over a three-year period according to a comprehensive joint investigation by the The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail.

The news outlets scoured roughly 3,200 civil asset forfeiture cases across South Carolina. The results, the reporters say, "yielded a clear picture of what is happening: Police are systematically seizing cash and property—many times from people who aren't guilty of a crime—netting millions of dollars each year."

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.

That's what happened to Isiah Kinloch, a North Charleston resident. While Kinloch was hospitalized for a head injury after fighting off a robber, police searched his apartment and found an ounce of marijuana and $1,800 in cash. Kinloch used the marijuana to manage pain resulting from a severe car accident, and he said the cash was from his work as a tattoo artist and cobbler. He was charged with possession with intent to distribute, but the charges were eventually dropped. Kinloch's cash, however, was forfeited—gone.

"The robber didn't get anything, but the police got everything," Kinloch told The Greenville News.

The investigation's findings track with what other media outlets and advocacy groups have found across the country, and what has led more than half of U.S. states to pass some form of asset forfeiture reform over the past decade.

Law enforcement groups say asset forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by cutting off the flow of illicit proceeds. The investigation notes that Myrtle Beach police and prosecutors used civil forfeiture to hamstring a sophisticated drug ring.

However, civil liberties groups say asset forfeiture has far too few protections for property owners, who must bear the cost of going to court and, in states that have yet to reform their laws, prove that their property was not connected to illegal activity. And the perverse profit incentive leads police to go fishing for petty seizures just as often, if not more, than drug lords.

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.

That's what civil asset forfeiture looks like on an individual level in South Carolina. Here's what it looks on a macro scale, according The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail investigation:

  • Most of the money isn't coming from kingpins or money laundering operations. It's coming from hundreds of encounters where police take smaller amounts of cash, often when they find regular people with drugs for personal use. Customers, not dealers. More than 55 percent of the time when police seized cash, they took less than $1,000.
  • Your cash or property can disappear in minutes but take years to get back. The average time between when property is seized and when a prosecutor files for forfeiture is 304 days, with the items in custody the whole time. Often, it's far longer, well beyond the two-year period state law allows for a civil case to be filed. But only rarely are prosecutors called out for missing the filing window and forced to return property to owners.
  • The bulk of forfeited money finances law enforcement, but there's little oversight of what is seized or how it's spent. 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.

As I mentioned, this is roughly in line with what numerous other investigations of state and local asset forfeiture programs have revealed.

In 2017, Reason reported that Cook County, Illinois, had seized $150 million over a five-year period. The median value of those more than 23,000 seizures was $1,049. Seizures were also clustered in poor and minority neighborhoods.

Civil asset forfeiture records obtained by Reason from Mississippi revealed a case in which police stripped the furniture from a woman's apartment, including lamps and a couch. All of her property was eventually returned in a court settlement, except for the couch.

Both of those states passed stronger reporting requirements for asset forfeiture and strengthened protections for property owners.

In South Carolina, however, asset forfeiture reform bills have failed to make any headway in the state legislature. South Carolina received a D+ grade for its lax civil asset forfeiture laws from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that has challenged forfeiture laws in several states.

One big obstacle to reform is opposition from law enforcement agencies, which pad their budgets with forfeiture revenue.
"Officers gather in places like Spartanburg County for contests with trophies to see who can make the largest or most seizures during highway blitzes," The Greenville News writes. "They earn hats, mementos and free dinners, and agencies that participate take home a cut of the forfeiture proceeds."

Photo Credit: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    Why would anyone stop for police at a roadblock?

    Even if you have to stop because the car in front of you stops, why would you ever roll your window down?

    Yell thru your window "Got a warrant, Fascists"? Then drive off. If they chase you down and stop you, you ask for what probable cause they had to pull you over which even the SOCTUS has determined is detaining someone? Since they have no probable cuase that you committed a crime, you sue the law enforcement agency and laugh as you cash their settlement check.

    After enough people ignore cops at unconstitutional checkpoints, they will stop doing it.

  • Cyto||

    Step 1 of your plan is live more than 100 miles from a border or port of entry. Good luck with that requirement, because the vast majority of the US population lives in a "Border Zone", where your rights can be suspended on the whim of the government. Because border.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Because border, because illegal sub-humans, and illegal sub-humans have taken over the brains of folks like loveconstitution1789, I am saddened to report to you... I do sincerely wish that things were otherwise...

    Hoist by his own petard, as the Romulans used to say, while the Germans were bombing Pearl Harbor!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Poor SQRLSY, has gone full troll re...tard.

  • Rich||

    Would someone *kindly* explain why civil asset forfeiture is not unconstitutional on the face of it?

  • Adans smith||

    FyTw

  • loveconstitution1789||

    It is.

    5th Amendment:
    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; [nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation].

    If the states takes $5000 cash, they owe you $5000 which is just compensation.

  • Cyto||

    Except for the FYTW exception to the constitution, a handy loophole that the courts have recognized as covering just about anything the government wants to do.

  • Rossami||

    Civil asset forfeiture has roots that go all the way back to the founding of our country. They started in answer to a smuggling problem but there is a modern analogy. Consider the following. You see two masked men trading drugs. As you chase them, they drop their suitcase of heroin in the street. You don't catch them and you can't even identify them. (Being exceptionally smart criminals, there's no DNA, fingerprints or other trace evidence.) So there's no one to arrest, much less to charge. But you can't leave the heroin lying in the street, either.

    What legal basis allows you to seize and destroy that contraband? Under most legal scenarios of property seizure, you can rely on the legitimate owners to step forward to assert their rights. But when it's obvious contraband, who in their right mind is going to do so? Civil Asset Forfeiture is the legal fiction that the illegal property can be directly "charged". It makes some sense when no owner can be found and no sane owner will step forward. In that limited scenario, it is constitutionally defensible.

    As more commonly implemented, however, CAF is an unconstitutional atrocity that the Supreme Court should have shut down years ago.

  • Minadin||

    This is a good explanation for why something like this might exist. If the police who use asset forfeiture had been destroying the seized property, instead of using it to fund their departments, they might almost be following the spirit of the law.

    As it is, they are just thieves, government thugs, trampling all over the 5th amendment.

  • Hank Phillips||

    It goes back farther. Lysander Spooner's No Treason was a satire of the Civil War income tax, with instructions to seize "extra for your trouble", and Union soldiers called freedmen "contraband" after a slave defected to Union ranks and was kept as "contraband of war." But those are outlier cases.

  • Jerryskids||

    I would say that every day the mask slips a little further, revealing the state for what it really is, but at this point we're into The Emperor's New Mask territory - if you can't see that this is nothing less than highway robbery it's only because you refuse to admit what's as plain as the nose on your face. This is how you get people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and AOC just out-and-out pointing out that there's people walking around with money and it would be wrong not to take it from them. And plenty of people applauding the idea of theft.

  • Rich||

    Somewhat germane: A nearly 100-year-old statute allows the chairmen of Congress' tax committees to look at anyone's returns.

    Many [Democrats] want to use it to make public confidential information about Trump's taxes that he's steadfastly refused to release.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    They never cite the actual law, so I call Bullshit on that Lefty fantasy.

  • brec||

    "The robber didn't get anything, but the police got everything,"

    Huh? One of the robbers didn't get anything. The others got everything.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Only $17 million in three years?
    C'mon, South Carolina.
    You're not even trying!

  • RoyMo||

    It's a poor state

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    If it can't do the time, that property shouldn't have done what looks like it could have been maybe a crime.

  • Dillinger||

    government theft. dicks.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Now you know why we call them looters.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Civil asset forfeiture records obtained by Reason from Mississippi revealed a case in which police stripped the furniture from a woman's apartment, including lamps and a couch. All of her property was eventually returned in a court settlement, except for the couch.

    You don't want to know what they did on that couch.

  • Cyto||

    I remember my idyllic youth. There were kooks who would make crackpot claims like "the government is just like organized crime". I rolled my eyes at them. They seemed to be disgruntled about one thing or another, but basically they just seemed to have a problem with authority and wanted to use hyperbolic rhetoric.

    Then I got older. And I gained life experience. And the state started this "asset forfeiture" crap.

    That's when it gets pretty naked.

    And that's when you can see the obvious parallels. Strike that. There is essentially no difference. The big organized crime groups became governments a long time ago. First it was tribal leaders. Then kings of city-states. Then larger kingdoms. And then we invented a new way of bestowing legitimacy on the rulers. We decided to vote for leaders.

    But the basic structure remains the same. Use force to control a territory. Extract tribute from the people within your territory. Provide protection and other largesse to keep the money flowing.

    The Sicilian Mob and elected governments have more in common than differences.

    Intense coverage of asset forfeiture in the national media would spread this insight. So we should probably avoid that topic on the national news.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I remember my idyllic youth. There were kooks who would make crackpot claims like "the government is just like organized crime". I rolled my eyes at them. They seemed to be disgruntled about one thing or another, but basically they just seemed to have a problem with authority and wanted to use hyperbolic rhetoric.

    Then I got older. And I gained life experience. And the state started this "asset forfeiture" crap.

    I had the exact same experience as you. Now those "kooks" are very pro-government and call me "alt-right".

  • SQRLSY One||

    Pro-government is ***THE*** way to go!!!

    Scienfoology Song… GAWD = Government Almighty's Wrath Delivers

    Government loves me, This I know,
    For the Government tells me so,
    Little ones to GAWD belong,
    We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

    GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
    Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
    Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
    And gives me all that I might need!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

    DEA, CIA, KGB,
    Our protectors, they will be,
    FBI, TSA, and FDA,
    With us, astride us, in every way!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

  • AnnieGramsonHill||

    I actually sang the 'Jesus Loves Me' song in vacation bible school as a child (my mom was glad for a free babysitter) and I've often recalled it in my mind when I think of the government, so I'm completely tickled to see someone else sharing the same sinful thoughts. Thanks!
    I'll be borrowing these verses.

  • Dillinger||

    yep.

  • perlchpr||

    The government is worse than the Mafia. At least when you pay your protection money to the Mafia they actually leave you alone. When you pay your protection money to the government, they use it hire people for the explicit purpose of fucking with you.

  • KiwiDude||

    Is it usual to search a house after a robbery attempt?

    Officer Safety perhaps? There might have been a WW2 Japanese solider in there who still hasnt surrendered

  • grb||

    You know, this issue seems to unite everyone in equal scorn, Left and Right. Who is actually for this crap except those people making out like a bandit? The only defense I ever heard was from - yes - a cop. And even then he was deserted by his ditto-zombie far-right friends (who usually maintain a common ideological front to gang up on me).

    At last, something to bring us together.......

  • Idaho Bob||

    Same. The only person I've ever met who defends CAF is a cop. Valuable crime fighting tool he calls it. I call it road piracy.

  • IceTrey||

    There is something seriously wrong with cops. I mean deep psychological problems.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Only certain types of people take a law enforcement job.

    Its usually ex-military because trained killer is hard to translate into the business world. Most military guys calm down and realize that the citizens are not the enemy and law enforcement is there to help. The police gadgets sometimes get cops tuned up to cause trouble or escalate situations when they should be de-escalating situations.

    Then you have psychopaths who realize that being a cop allows you to hurt people and mostly get away with it. All under an adrenaline rush.

  • jcwconsult||

    Civil forfeiture without a conviction for a related crime is governmental larceny. All the officials involved in such thefts should be prosecuted for larceny.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • majil||

    just shoot them in the face

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Feudal lords gotta feudal.

  • Ride 'Em||

    Simple solution asset forfeiture proceeds should go to finance public defenders. Funds would dry up in a week.

  • grb||

    That's a wickedly shrewd idea......

  • majil||

    Cheer when cops are shot in the face

  • Hank Phillips||

    This sort of thing had its start during Volstead and Harrison Act prohibition, including libel seizure of entire ships over wine. The Harding, Coolidge and Hoover Administrations were all Republican, and dedicated to Comstock law, income tax and prohibition asset forfeiture. The Bush-Reagan admins repeated the error, and the G. Waffen Bush faith-based asset forfeiture craze caused an additional crash and depression beginning in 2008. This is why Republicans are WAY more dangerous to the economy than the commie Dems could ever dream of being.

  • EWM||

    "The whole good cop/bad cop question can be disposed of much more decisively. We need not enumerate what proportion of cops appears to be good or listen to someone's anecdote about his Uncle Charlie, an allegedly good cop. We need only consider the following: (1) a cop's job is to enforce the laws, all of them; (2) many of the laws are manifestly unjust, and some are even cruel and wicked; (3) therefore every cop has agreed to act as an enforcer for laws that are manifestly unjust or even cruel and wicked. There are no good cops." ~Robert Higgs

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