COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina lawmakers are considering a major overhaul of the state’s forfeiture laws, requiring a criminal conviction before money or other items can be taken.
The proposals would also create a public online database of forfeiture cases and send all money and items seized to the state instead of letting it be kept by local police agencies.
A House subcommittee held a public hearing on the bills Thursday. They are expected to soon be heard by the full House Judiciary Committee.
The proposals were prompted by an investigation by The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail that found $17 million was seized across the state from 2014 to 2016. Nearly 20 percent of the more than 4,000 people who had money or items seized were never charged with a crime.
The newspapers’ series called “Taken” reviewed asset forfeiture cases from all 46 South Carolina counties. In some places, the records were online on court websites. In others, reporters had to visit the county courthouse in person. And in some cases, there weren’t public records at all.
A review of documents show 65 percent of the people targeted for civil asset forfeiture from 2014 to 2016 were black males in a state where African-American men make up just 13 percent of the population, the newspapers reported.
Current South Carolina law allows police to seize property if they think it was obtained through illegal means or if it is used for illegal activity.
Bill sponsor Rep. Alan Clemmons said forfeiture laws have a good foundation to allow law enforcement to take away proceeds and profits from selling drugs and other illegal activity. But he said lawmakers back in the 1990s did not restrict them enough to protect people’s rights to keep their own property.
“We put together a statutory scheme where we could arrest stuff - where we could arrest things,” the Myrtle Beach Republican said.
More than 90 House members have signed on to the bills. They don’t like that people who have their property taken can sign away their rights on the side of the road or that people can lose property without even knowing what is going on. The newspapers reported on a woman in Conway who had to fight having her house seized because people were selling drugs on her lawn without her knowing.
Law enforcement officials said forfeiture laws are critical tools to destroy drug rings and other criminal enterprises. They said the money pays for programs like drug dogs or better equipment that they couldn’t otherwise afford.
“We’re doing it properly. We’re not taking people’s money. We’re not standing on the side of the road saying either give us the money or you’re going to have to wait for 45 minutes until a (drug) dog gets here,” Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright said.
Rep. Weston Newton said the public database of forfeiture data seems like the bare minimum lawmakers can do and said the only question in his mind is whether it is kept by the State Law Enforcement Division or a different agency.
“Sunshine and transparency are the best disinfectant,” the Bluffton Republican said. “You can go on the internet today and pretty much find out anything.”
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