CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Law enforcement officers in the Lowcountry seized more than a million dollars of money and assets last year that they suspected were related to drugs.
But potential changes to the law would mean officers would have to follow stricter rules for seizing money and property.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Canon says such changes would burden taxpayers and help drug dealers.
“We’ve had a huge upsurge in drug use. It is a huge, huge problem. And if the government takes away one of the tools we have to really hit them, that’s only gonna help the drug dealers.”
That tool he’s talking about is the ability to seize cash or any items that officers think are related to drug money.
“It goes back to the strategy from early days of drug enforcement. It hits them harder,” Cannon said.
He said under the current law, criminals know the cost of running an illegal business is the risk of losing all related money.
A common argument is that bank robbers don’t get to keep the money the steal after they get caught.
“It’s not just we seize the money and it’s ours. It goes through a judicial process,” Cannon pointed out.
People can try to prove the money or items that were seized were legitimate and not related to drug money by going to civil court with documentation.
Civil rights advocates, defense attorneys and citizens who get caught up in the civil forfeiture process have concerns about officers seizing property and money from suspects before they are actually convicted.
“That’s kind of the opposite of the way the criminal justice system works,” local defense attorney David Aylor said. “With being arrested, you’re actually innocent until proven guilty. This is more like they take the items and you have to prove they’re actually legitimate. That’s where it’s backwards.”
He thinks there should be stricter thresholds for officers to seize money and property. “It’s very frustrating. [Officers] could go into a house with a search warrant, find a certain amount of drugs, and then within that home take flat screen TVs, stereo, other pieces of equipment. But just because someone may have drugs on them, whether it be on their person or in their home or car, that doesn’t mean they’re per se a drug dealer.”
One case he worked on involved a man pulled over on the interstate. “Over $40,000 was taken from a vehicle pulled on I-95 and the person was not actually charged with any criminal charge. But they still went forward with the civil forfeiture and due to lack of documentation, all that money was gone. So it can as small as a few hundred dollars up to tens of thousands of dollars that come into play even though someone’s not actually convicted of any criminal activity.”
More than 80 state lawmakers are working with solicitors in South Carolina to rewrite the law.
Such changes might include officers being able to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that money or items are related to drugs (compared to the current 51% chance of relationship to drugs).
There’s a push to prohibit seizure of small amounts of money and make it harder to seize items during traffic stops.
Such reforms are happening nationwide, too.
“It absolutely makes no sense,” said Sheriff Cannon. “That was something that worked. It is just absolutely stunning that the general assembly and congress would go after the good guys and take what is a very valuable means of hitting the drug dealers where it hurts.”
He said CCSO officer already rarely seize amounts of money under $1,000.
The changes would hit the taxpayer harder, too. Money seized can eventually be used by law enforcement agencies to fund drug-fighting activity. They can auction or sell items seized to raise funds.
Berkeley County Sheriff’s office an off-road Polaris vehicle with seized money.
Dorchester County Sheriff invested in a new 3-D crime scene imaging system.
Summerville PD and several other departments fund K-9 units and extra training for narcotics officers.
Those are all things that might have been unfunded otherwise, the departments said.
“It minimizes the impact on taxpayers,” Cannon said.
Our sister station, WMBF, reported that an Horry County Judge ruled in August that such seizures were unconstitutional, saying South Carolina’s civil forfeiture laws violate the prohibition on excessive fines found in the Eighth Amendment, while also violating due process under the Fifth and 14th amendments. Click here to read the decision in full.
Aylor said that ruling doesn’t impact the Tri County directly yet but could -- if judges here lean on that decision for local cases. WMBF reported that the proposed bill was sparked by an investigation by the Greenville News which revealed South Carolina agencies seized more than $17 million in three years.