Civil forfeiture is a tool law enforcement uses to seize cash and other goods involved in crime and putting them back into fighting more crime. It’s also a big revenue stream for many law enforcement agencies in South Carolina.
An investigation by the Greenville News and Andersen Independent Mail found civil forfeiture brought in $17 million over three years for agencies across the state. Another finding, nearly one-fifth of the people who had their assets seized weren’t charged with a crime.
Greenville News reporter Nathaniel Cary joined WFAE’s Lisa Worf.
Lisa Worf: So, before we get to specific cases, how do we get to the point of officers seizing someone's assets?
Nathaniel Cary: The process of civil asset forfeiture begins usually with a drug investigation or a traffic stop. And many times it's related to a drug-dealing investigation. Sometimes there's illegal gambling cases or a few other instances where they can seize property or cash, and officers under the South Carolina law are allowed to seize any product or cash or property that they believe is tied to an illegal crime.
But because it's a civil case, they don't have to charge that person with a crime. They just have to be able to say we believe this is tied to a crime, we believe this could have been used for a crime. But they don't actually have to prove that crime.
Related Content: Police Seize $17M In 3 Years; Black People Targeted Most
Worf: Some of the cases that you highlighted, for example, involve traffic stops. You know, maybe marijuana is found in the car and another passenger is caught up and gets their assets seized. How does that work?
Cary: The specific tactic that is used is that it's close proximity to drugs and that if a person can't specifically prove why they have that money, police will tend to seize the money you and your colleagues examined.
Worf: [There were] 3,200 forfeiture cases over three years and another of the cases you highlight is that of Ella Bromo, a 72-year-old widow who has never been charged with a crime. But the city of Conway tried to take her home twice. What was the reasoning behind that?
Cary: What happened in her case were people through the years would have drug deals in her yard or after she goes to sleep. Eventually, the city said if you have other drug deals in your yard, we're going to seize your house — charging [it] as a nuisance location. So, her response was, how am I supposed to stop somebody in my yard if I go to bed at night? And she did what she could. She cut down her hedges in the front yard and did other things to try to make it easier for police to see.
But she didn't do enough, apparently, in the city's opinion. And they tried to seize her house and it went all the way through the court system. Two judges wrote an opinion that excoriated the city for trying to seize the home of an elderly widow who had no criminal history whatsoever.
Worf: How did the city justify that?
Cary: The city looks at it from the standpoint of they're trying to clean up a known drug area, and this is one of the locations that they saw as a problem.
Worf: And what are you hearing from agencies across the state about justifying civil forfeiture in cases where there are no criminal charges brought?
Cary: Many times the police chiefs will tell us these are known drug dealers. Even if there are no drugs found [and] no charges brought in this specific instance, they may have a criminal background — a history others will tell us. [And they will say] that they were able to seize the money, test the money and there was drug residue found on the money. And so that gave them justification for it.
Others will tell us if they want to contest it, that's fine. They can hire an attorney and they can contest it and we'll give it back if we’re wrong.
Worf: How hard is it to get your money back? What is that process like?
Cary: One of the things we found by documenting all of these cases is that 55 percent of the time, police officers are seizing less than 1,000. In more than 2,000 instances, they seized less than $500 from somebody.
So because this plays out in civil court, you're not provided an attorney. So if an officer seizes $600 you have on you — whether they found drugs are not — to get that $600 back, you have to either hire an attorney or you have to try to represent yourself in civil court.
You know many times we’ve pointed out that people really want to fight back — they believe it was unjustified. But they have no way to fight back.
Worf: Your reporting shows that African-American men accounted for 65 percent of civil forfeitures though they only make up 13 percent of South Carolina's population. Why is there such a disparity there?
Cary: I don't think it's any surprise that African-Americans — and especially African-American men — are targeted by our judicial system more often than other segments of society. But we were greatly surprised at how much the disparity was in South Carolina, and it was from multiple jurisdictions across the states.
There's a number of reasons that we found in talking to experts and talking to attorneys, and a few of them deal with the historic racial injustices in South Carolina. So there's this historic distrust among minorities of the system itself.
So African-Americans in South Carolina more likely to carry cash. They're more likely to work in a job that raises cash and they're more likely to not have a bank account. They’re also more likely if they have a bank account, not to use it.
What some police officers and departments have told us as well — and our local police chief in Greenville said — is in our department, we respond to calls. If calls are happening in historically minority neighborhoods, that's where we go. And if the majority of our violent crime is happening there or our drug investigators are being called there, then the result is this disparity. There's no easy answer to that, but the numbers were shocking.
Worf: Have there been efforts in South Carolina to reform the system?
Cary: There have been efforts in the past. Many times a few senators or a few representatives will file bills to reform civil forfeiture at some level, but none of those bills have even been assigned to a subcommittee. One reason we believe is that nobody really knew the extent of the issue.
The investigation quotes one critic as saying South Carolina is the poster child for injustice inherent in the civil forfeiture system. Most states have taken steps to reform their forfeiture systems.
In North Carolina, a criminal conviction is now required to seize assets. Civil forfeitures are allowed in some instances, but that money doesn’t go to law enforcement agencies, but to the state’s education fund.