GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — A prosecutor is appealing to the South Carolina Supreme Court a lower court’s ruling that the state’s forfeiture laws are not legal.
Last year, Circuit Judge Steven John ruled the state and U.S. constitutions were violated by a law that allows police departments to take cash, cars, houses and other items that came from proceeds of illegal activities even if someone isn’t convicted of a crime.
The ruling only affected two counties, so Solicitor Jimmy Richardson is asking the Supreme Court to decide if the ruling was right and should be applied to the whole state.
“Horry County and Georgetown County is being treated differently than everybody else in the state,” Richardson told The Greenville News.
The case involves a man who had about $20,000 in cash taken from him after he was arrested on drug charges. John ruled the seizure amounted to an excessive fine. His opinion said the burden of proving the source and use of the money or other items are on the property owner and there isn’t sufficient judicial review of the forfeiture process.
The justices haven’t decided if they will take up the case.
Meanwhile, the Greenville newspaper reports that lawmakers in the South Carolina House are working on a bill that would abolish forfeiture in cases where the property owner is not convicted of a crime.
The bill would also order swift initial hearings in forfeiture cases to decide if the property should be returned to owners while they await trial in criminal cases, Rep. Gary Clary said.
The bill, which should be filed soon, also will include a minimum amount for property or cash seized to keep law enforcement from seizing an amount that might still be significant to an owner, but not worth the fight to get it back, the Republican from Pickens County said.
Richardson backs the idea of getting rid of forfeiture when there is no criminal conviction.
“Any time we take people’s property, we should be able to prove to whatever standard that it was used in the sale of drugs,” Richardson said.
The look to overhaul forfeiture laws in South Carolina 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.