September 21, 2020

Longtime readers of Liberty & Law know the fight to end civil forfeiture requires both persistence and creativity. In Philadelphia, for instance, IJ launched our first class action lawsuit to shut down the city’s massive forfeiture machine. And our groundbreaking studies, including our latest report exposing the Department of Homeland Security’s “jetway robbery,” show how civil forfeiture has become a multibillion-dollar threat to innocent Americans. Now, IJ is stepping into an ongoing forfeiture lawsuit to ask the South Carolina Supreme Court to end this abusive practice in the state once and for all.

Back in 2017, prosecutors seized and tried to permanently take Travis Green’s money. After IJ’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court victory in Timbs v. Indiana, the trial court asked whether South Carolina’s forfeiture statutes could still pass constitutional muster. Leaning heavily on IJ’s forfeiture victories in New Mexico and elsewhere, Travis’ attorneys persuaded the court to strike down civil forfeiture entirely, forbidding officials from forfeiting his—or anyone else’s—money in that judicial circuit.

Of course, prosecutors had too much money on the line to allow that decision to stand. As documented by an extensive investigative series that ran last year in The Greenville News, South Carolina officials seized and forfeited over $17 million over a three-year period. So when those prosecutors appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court to keep their gravy train running, IJ teamed up with Travis to defend this significant victory for the property rights of all South Carolinians.

After all, the trial court made the right call. Under South Carolina law, prosecutors don’t have to prove owners did anything wrong to deprive them of their cash, cars, or even homes. Instead, property owners must prove their own innocence. That can take months, or even years, since South Carolina doesn’t give owners prompt hearings. And though officials claim forfeiture targets criminal kingpins, more than half of cash seizures in South Carolina are for less than $1,000—and one-third involve less than $500. Unsurprisingly, many forfeiture victims give up or settle for pennies on the dollar.

Even worse, when South Carolina police and prosecutors prevail, they keep at least 95% of forfeiture proceeds for their own use, which they can spend in questionable ways, including underwriting luxury travel, fancy vehicles, and even commercial real estate. With no in-state reporting requirements and few other accountability provisions, the true scale of abuse is anyone’s guess. These incentives lead law enforcement agencies to chase dollars rather than criminals, organizing large-scale events like “Operation Rolling Thunder,” where they give trophies to officers who seize the most property.

South Carolina is a shocking picture of how civil forfeiture distorts law enforcement priorities, undermines official accountability, and weakens public confidence in the police. IJ stepped into this case to persuade the South Carolina Supreme Court to bring this abominable practice to an end once and for all.

Robert Frommer is an IJ senior attorney.

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