Civil forfeiture is becoming a hot-button issue. The notion that a government agency can seize property based solely on suspicious activity, even without a conviction, rankles freedom-loving citizens. Stories abound about innocent people losing cars and large amounts of money. In fact, in many places around the country, the police don’t even have to charge you with a crime to seize your property. One state in which civil forfeiture is out of control is South Carolina, and the police are doubling down in defense of their right to do it.
The Greenville News conducted an investigation and discovered that “in a fifth of forfeiture cases in South Carolina, no one is convicted of a crime. In 19 percent of cases, there is no criminal arrest.” The same investigation uncovered that South Carolina police agencies have seized over $17 million in cash and property under the state’s civil forfeiture laws.
While there can be good reasons for law enforcement agencies to seize the property of criminals, the abuse of civil forfeiture is a serious problem. And regardless of what you think about civil forfeiture as a law enforcement tool, the defense of it offered by Jarrod Bruder, the executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, should concern you.
Speaking to the Greenville News, Bruder made the astonishing claim that without civil forfeiture, police are less likely to do their job, allowing drug dealers to go unchecked. He asked, “what is the incentive to go out and make a special effort? What is the incentive for interdiction?”
As a general rule, the cash and property seized ends up padding the bank accounts of the South Carolina police agencies that made the seizure. The acknowledgment from Bruder that at least some police departments view civil forfeiture as an extra revenue stream is troubling. Pushing back, civil rights advocates are calling for all cash and properties seized by police to be placed in a general state fund not controlled by law enforcement agencies. Doing so protects a tool the police have to fight crimes like drug trafficking but without incentivizing local law enforcement agencies to play fast and loose with the civil forfeiture laws. While not a complete cure for the problem, that’s a sensible solution that should help curb abuses.
Not all local police agencies are on board with that suggestion, though. Greenville Police Chief Ken Miller flatly defended civil forfeiture as currently practiced to Greenville News by saying that innocent people have the option to go before a judge if they want their property back. Read that again.
The police chief of an American city believes that it’s okay to force innocent civilians to suffer the cost and hassle of going through the legal system just to reclaim what is already rightfully their property.
Beyond forcing innocent people to appeal to the courts in order to reclaim their property, South Carolina’s civil forfeiture laws are often unjust to begin with. Greenville News explains that law enforcement officers don’t even have to arrest the individual in order to seize the property. So, if you live in South Carolina (or one of the other states with similar civil forfeiture laws), your private property is basically the property of the police if they decide that they want it. As the caption under the image used by Greenville News states, “nearly everyone does something illegal if you follow them long enough.”
No doubt, the majority of officers do not abuse the civil forfeiture laws. But any abuse of power by the authorities is cause for grave concern. Changing civil forfeiture laws in order to protect citizens is a move that law-abiding police officers should applaud. Greenville Police Chief Ken Miller, Jarrod Bruder, and those among their colleagues who agree with them are demonstrating that they are concerned about serving and protecting their own interests at the expense of serving and protecting the community.