Black Men Targeted in Civil Forfeiture Get Relief from State Legislature

South Carolina’s House of Representatives this week introduced two bills to create a statewide database that would trace money seized by law enforcement and abolish civil forfeiture. The proposed legislation follow an investigative report that found more than 3,200 cases of state police appropriation of cash and property from 2014 and 2016, mainly targeting Black people.

One of the bills urges the replacement of civil forfeiture with criminal forfeiture based on a felony conviction. February’s special report by The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail found that officers were seizing property from people even if they weren’t charged with a crime. “Of the more than 4,000 people affected by civil forfeiture over three years, 19 percent were never arrested,” the investigation indicated, while “800 people were charged with a crime but not convicted.” The legislation needs 63 votes to pass the House and advance to the state senate, Greenville News reported on March 2.

The investigation detailed that “police are systematically seizing cash and property — many times from people who aren’t guilty of a crime — netting millions of dollars each year,” and that “South Carolina law enforcement profits from this policing tactic: the bulk of the money ends up in its possession.” Over three years, South Carolina law enforcement agencies raked in more than $17 million, leaving thousands of citizens penniless.

Although police officials argue that forfeiture “allows them to hamstring crime rings and take money from drug dealers,” the investigation found that Black men pay the harsh consequences of this operation. “They represent 13 percent of the state's population. Yet 65 percent of all citizens targeted for civil forfeiture in the state are Black males,” the investigation noted, adding that “if you are white, you are twice as likely to get your money back than if you are Black.”

Another key finding is the confiscation of items that are later sold at auction, such as jewelry, electronics, firearms, boats, and RVs. Ninety-five percent of forfeiture revenue returns to South Carolina law enforcement, and the rest goes to the state’s general fund, the report said.

The investigation is one example of an even larger issue, which was recently taken up by the US Supreme Court. According to a February report from the St. Louis Public Radio and the Washington, DC-based Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the federal government has collected $36.5 billion in civil forfeiture in the past two decades, with many of these seizures taking place “along corridors that carry drugs east to big cities and cash back west,” as well as in poorer neighborhoods. In most cases, people are never charged with a crime.

The same report revealed that more than half the states have enacted forfeiture reform in the past five years. However, law enforcement bypasses these reform laws by using the Equitable Sharing loophole. This practice has brought together an unusual coalition of organizations including the ACLU, the Cato Institute, and the Koch Brothers, which call for reform in court, Congress and the state legislature, St. Louis Public Radio found.

“The practice skirts the Fourth Amendment's guarantee that Americans are free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and it provides a potentially corrupting incentive for police to circumvent the law to fund their departments,” the report added. Police departments are not the only ones eyeing the profitability of civil forfeiture. A February report from the US News and World Report found that President Donald Trump hoped to pull $600 million from the Treasury Department to build sections of the border wall should a national emergency be declared. The money mostly comes from seized cash, cars, and property by the Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security.


About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and U.S. politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.