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Civil Asset Forfeiture rules unconstitutional in SC court

  • 17-10-2019 4:39pm
    Registered Users Posts: 81,567 ✭✭✭✭

    Hopefully this argument will escalate and we can get rid of this scheme for good nationwide.

    A South Carolina circuit court judge in Horry County has ruled the state's civil asset forfeiture law unconstitutional, in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments.

    While the decision by 15th Circuit Court Judge Steven H. John doesn't set precedent beyond his courtroom, it could set the table for a state appellate court to determine whether South Carolina needs to enact reforms to its law.

    Earlier this year The Greenville News published coverage from a two-year investigation into civil asset forfeiture in South Carolina. The series, called TAKEN, addressed questions that were raised by legislators, attorneys and citizens. Journalists with The News, the Anderson Independent Mail and the USA Today Network examined more than 3,200 cases in South Carolina from 2014 to 2016 and found:

    ► Agencies in South Carolina seized more than $17 million from people over the course of three years. The bulk of that money ended up in the hands of law enforcement to pay for drug-crime fighting.

    ► Nearly 800 times when police seized money or property, no related criminal charge was filed. In another 800 cases, someone was charged with a crime but not convicted. As part of recent reforms, 15 states have made forfeiture dependent on a criminal conviction; South Carolina has not, though efforts to reform the practice are ongoing in the state Legislature.

    ► About 65% of the cases involved black men though black men make up just 13% of the state’s population.

    ► Prosecutors have up to two years after police seize money to file a civil court case justifying the seizure. On average, when a person petitions to have money or property returned, the case takes 17 months from the time of the seizure to be resolved, regardless of the outcome of any related criminal charges.

    John's written decision found that South Carolina's forfeiture laws violate both the federal and state constitutional protections against excessive fines by allowing the government to seize unlimited amounts of cash and property that aren't proportionate to the alleged crime.

    "Indeed, they allow the government to seize unlimited amounts of cash and other property when no crime has been committed, without a criminal conviction and without proof of a crime having been committed beyond a determination of probable cause," John wrote.

    What the judge said makes SC's forfeiture laws unconstitutional
    In his order, Judge John ruled that South Carolina's forfeiture statutes violate state and federal law in four ways:

    ► The prohibition on excessive fines.

    ► Due process in that they place the burden on the property owner to prove their innocence.

    ► Due process by institutionally incentivizing forfeiture officials to prosecute forfeitures.

    ► Due process because they "do not mandate judicial review or judicial authorization prior to or subsequent to the seizure."

    South Carolina's forfeiture laws would allow law enforcement to seize millions of dollars from a person even when the maximum fine authorized by law is minimal or when no crime has been committed at all, John wrote.

    "This unfettered authorization to seize unlimited amounts of property from citizens without regard to the proportionality of the offense committed — indeed, without evidence proving that the individual committed an offence — compels this Court to find that the statutory scheme in unconstitutional and must be invalidated under the federal and state constitutional prohibitions on excessive fines and pursuant to the United States Supreme Court's decision in Timbs," John wrote.

    The order laid out the reasons why the state's "forfeiture scheme," as the judge wrote, provides an unconstitutional incentive to prosecute cases.

    ► Forfeiture revenues in each agency are directed to a designated special revenue fund, and these funds are used to pay program expenses, for discretionary items that would otherwise by unavailable to the law enforcement agency, and to pay for recurring expenses, "creating a secondary budget within each agency that is not subject to legislative approval and that results in agency dependence on forfeiture funds to continue paying those expenses."

    ► The existence of forfeiture programs at law enforcement agencies depends on revenue generated by forfeitures.

    ► Forfeiture revenue is used to justify the salaries of forfeiture officials, and declines in forfeiture revenue may result in the elimination of forfeiture officials' positions.

    ► Declines in forfeiture revenue would require the elimination of significant discretionary spending by agencies.

    ► "In practice, officials involved in the forfeiture programs control how forfeiture income is budgeted and spent with little or no oversight from the legislature."

    To those just tuning in to CAF, here's a quick review